Is there a Difference Between a Believer and A Disciple?

QUESTION: Is there a difference between a Believer and a Disciple?

If you walk away from the faith – were you ever truly saved?

ANSWER: Thanks for the question.  I’ll summarize the argument from the article, and then respond to it.

The author saw the light when they realized that Christ’s offer of salvation is totally divorced from his call to followership.  One can merely believe the beliefs about Jesus, and not love or follow Jesus, and still be saved.  This liberated him from having to think that every Christian would automatically be a fruit-bearing, obedient disciple, since it seems in the real world that a lot of professed Christians walked in disobedience and failure.  So he had to believe either that the Holy Spirit had failed, and that God was  guilty of breaking his promise of “eternal life”, OR that these people simply were never Christians in the first place which seemed to deny their clear experience.

Rejecting those two options, the author now believes that “belief” in Scripture means simply ‘assent to truth’.  In other words, if I simply agree mentally to the idea that Jesus is a Savior, I have eternal life in that moment.  Following Jesus after that moment then, is optional, and a choice some Christians make and others don’t make.  And the reason to be a disciple then, and not just a believer is because many rewards are offered in heaven and to not follow or love Jesus after “belief” will cause you to suffer loss in heaven.

I understand why the author feels forced into this view, with certain verses in Scripture and experience suggesting it, but I think he’s actually not handling all the relevant Biblical data well.  So I think it’s an error to divorce salvation from discipleship and I’ll explain why.  But first, I should mention what his view has going for it. Two things:

  1. It very clearly affirms the Biblical teaching that salvation is by grace through faith and this is not our work, but wholly God’s.  One does not get cleaned up to take a bath, and the gospel is the bath, it washes us clean and no clean up prior to its reception is required.
  2. It effectively addresses verses that deal with reward in heaven and the neglected idea that just as the experience of hell will not be uniform, neither will the experience of heaven.  Faithful discipleship will yield reward in the New World.

Now, I poked around the articles by this same author just to see if he was going to deal with some very obvious Scriptural push back that came to mind.  I didn’t see him address it, so I remain skeptical until I see how he handles two ideas that recur in Scripture a lot:

  1. The idea that faith is not defined in most cases the way he defines it: as mere assent to certain propositions as knowledge.  In fact, faith is most often shown as a rich, beautiful term describing a whole person turning to Christ.  When it IS described as “mere belief” it is rebuked as unable to lead to salvation.
  2. The idea that it is quite possible for believers to lose their standing in grace.

Let me defend those two critiques.

The bible connects belief and discipleship on almost every page – Jesus most often of all.  To imagine that Jesus’ repeated call to discipleship is not connected to his offer of salvation, you have presume that every time Jesus calls people to “follow” he is talking to people who are already-believers, and every time he calls people to “believe” in him, he’s talking to non-believers.

Now, the author said he struggled when he connected belief and discipleship because he felt he had to overcomplicate the gospel message with complex definitions about what faith meant.  Ironically, if you separate them, you have to really overcomplicate the gospels, because you have to decide when Jesus was talking only to “believers” or to non-believers and why.  To claim that every call to follow was given to people who already believed strains the text to the breaking point.

One potent example: Matt 19:16-22. The case is the rich young ruler who wants eternal life.  Jesus turns him to the law.  He confidently asserts he’s obeyed the law, to which Jesus says, “One thing you lack.”  And then He calls for total commitment to himself, demonstrated in the selling of his possessions and following Jesus.

To maintain the divorcement of belief and following, our author must assert that this young man WAS ALREADY a believer.  If Jesus only called believers to discipleship, since Jesus is clearly calling the man to follow him, he must already be a believer.

But is that reasonable to assume?  He walks away from that conversation in tears, “grieving”, Matthew recounts.  Why?  Because he was going to go to heaven and get eternal life, but he was just going to miss out on some rewards?  No, the grief is only understandable when it’s connected to his first request – “how do I gain eternal life?”  This is what he assumes he is missing out on.  Did Jesus call after the man to say, “no my brother, don’t be sad, you are already saved because I know you already have “belief” in me (whatever that means).  I just want you to get your full reward in addition to eternal life!”?

No, he did not.  In fact, Jesus not only says no such thing, he also mentions directly following this how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 19:23).  So obviously what’s at stake in this exchange is eternal life.  Heaven.  Salvation.  Not rewards in heaven – heaven itself.  And it hangs on a clear call to repent.

At this point a word should be said about works-based salvation. Is Jesus putting works forward as the condition of salvation?  Not at all, as I argue in this post..  Jesus was shrewdly using the law as a teacher to drive the man toward Grace.  But what I also argue is that Jesus’ demand would have broken the rich man who relied on his wealth like an idol – and thus would have brought him to a faith-filled dependence on God’s mercy alone to be saved.

In other words, if he really applied what Jesus said, he would not get life by it, by rather he would die by it!!  Die to his idols, pride and self-sufficiency – and only then would he live – by grace.

This is so consistent across the gospels.  Jesus said, one must ‘lose his life for my sake, and live.”  Jesus said, “Whoever does not deny himself cannot be my disciple”.  The author here would try to convince us that he only said such things to already-believers whom we ought to presume were saved by merely thinking Jesus was a life giver.

But in Luke 14:25, it says that Jesus gave this challenge to “great crowds”.  These were all believers?  I supposed one could argue that since they were traveling with him they must already believe in him.  Perhaps, but then we consider that when Jesus went from town to town his message was consistently, “repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

That one sentence tells us that belief in Jesus is something more than mere mental assent to a doctrinal position.  Faith then, is a robust thing, which includes repentance.  Connecting faith and repentance happens almost universally when the gospel is presented for salvation.  In the early church, for example: Acts 2:38-39:

“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

So while we agree that Salvation is by faith alone, we see that the condition of “faith” is something richer and deeper than mere “belief”.  It is more like, “believing loyalty” as Dr Michael Heiser puts it.  Looking all over scripture at this majestic theme of salvation by grace through faith, what can we say such “believing loyalty” look like?

It looks like this (and none of these descriptors ought to be construed as “work”):

  • A broken and contrite heart (Ps 51:16-17)
  • Confession of sin (Ps 32:5)
  • Turning from sin (Matt 11:20 – note you can turn from sin without stopping all sin.  Repent means to “change the mind” – it denotes a repudiation of sin, which one can do before one even stops the sins.)
  • Belief – believing in the truth of God’s appointed means of reconciliation, Jesus Christ, born, crucified, raised from the dead (Romans 10:9).
  • Trust – a thing is true, therefore is worthy of trust.  So faith is a whole person casting of your sin and self onto the mercy of God in confidence he will save (Romans 10:11).

If we want to know for sure that when the Bible says “faith” it means more than mere “conviction in the mind something is true” – we need only look at when such a definition IS implied, it is strongly rebuked.

So in Romans 6:1 Paul addresses those who hear the good news of God’s unmerited favor by faith alone, and take it for permission to live in sin.  This is abhorrent to him.  He’s not merely saying, it’s a bad idea to sin all the more because God is so gracious because you might lose out on some reward.  He’s saying that it’s not consistent with the act of faith that brought you into Grace in the first place, and that act of faith is synonymous with dying, to self and to sin.

Again, this dying is not a work.  It is not something we do to earn salvation, it is part and parcel of true biblical Faith, without which we cannot be saved.

James most notably uses faith in the sense of “mere assent to certain doctrines”.  For he says, in 2:19:

“You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe—and they shudder.”  

Clearly, to simply believe a doctrine, no matter how true, is useless.  If demons have true beliefs and their doom is certain, how can it be that humans could, by the mere presence of true beliefs in their minds about Jesus, be saved?

We can also add John to the list of those who assume that saving faith is something more than mere “assent to truth”, and that continuing in an ongoing, unrepentant patterns of sin is inconsistent with the new life grace works into those who are born again.

“Anyone who continues to live in him will not sin. But anyone who keeps on sinning does not know him or understand who he is.” 

1 John 3:6

So the category of “believer who is saved but is unrepentant and keeps on undeterred in sin” is not a real category.

Therefore, a “believer” in New Testament parlance is synonymous with “disciple”.  When a person comes to Jesus in saving faith, they come as a disciple ready to follow, or they haven’t really come.  They come broken, repentant, confessional, trusting and believing.  None of these things indicates sinlessness, none of these things is a work, none of these things earns salvation – these qualities merely define faith through which God’s grace becomes operative in our lives for salvation and sanctification.

Now, is every repentant believer following Jesus well?  Of course not.  And the Bible certainly has a category for these people.  But they are not called “non-disciples”.  They are called young, or weak, or immature (Heb 5:11-14).  There are ignorant believers in the book of Acts who have much to learn about the way of Jesus, but they are still called disciples (Acts 19:1).

In fact, think of the incoherence of Acts if the apostles truly did divorce belief from followership, believers from disciples.  When Acts says Paul “taught the disciples”, or when it says the council “wrote to the disciples” or when it says Paul “strengthened all the disciples” we would have to conclude all these references are to only half the church.  These would have to be references to only the sold-out ones who had truly repented of sin and taken on Jesus as Lord.  Are we to assume the “mere believers” are just hanging out at the fringes of the New Testament community, continuing in sin, not loving Jesus at all, but somehow intellectually accepting that he’s the Messiah?  Of course not.  In fact the term “believers” is used interchangeably with “disciples” (Acts 16:1).

Also, the letters of Paul would make no sense if we divorce believing from following.  Clearly, the letters indicate many in the churches were ineffective, disobedient, struggling, and sinful.  I am all those things at times, but I still think I’m a disciple.  And Paul also thought of such imperfect followers as the “saints” (1 Cor 1:2).  They were all “holy ones”, by the merit of Jesus, even if immature, and struggling with the old life.  And yet, if they struggled so much that nothing in their lives showed the regenerating activity of the Holy Spirit, Paul actually urged them to evaluate if they were saved. (2 Cor 13:3)

This is only understandable if saving faith works.  Living things grow.  Yes, living things can also struggle; living things can be very unhealthy.  But all living things show some signs of life.  If there was no sign of life, it’s hard to deny that Paul questioned if someone was saved.  Good deeds are not required to be saved – being saved leads inexorably to good deeds.

Now, your second question – Is the apostate someone who was never saved?

Well, this author has a bit of a unique position.  Like a strong Calvinist he believes that God’s grace is effective and all saints persevere to the end without losing their salvation.  So if a saint does repudiate the faith, the Calvinist is forced to believe that such persons were never saved in the first place.

The author here parts company quite radically with that view and suggests that even if you repudiate the faith, if you ever expressed belief in Jesus (and remember his definition of belief is “mere assent to God’s truth”) you are saved nevertheless.  Yes, even if you become an atheist (same author, different post).

He loses me at that point.  This is to imagine that while God lays out faith as the only condition of salvation, yet if one expresses every sentiment in direct opposition to what we defined as “saving faith”, no belief, no trust, no repentance, no confession – that person will nevertheless be saved if at any point in their lives, they did one time assent to certain facts about Jesus.

This puts God in a terribly coercive posture, one that negates the will of the free moral agent made free in God’s Image.  To appeal to the prior free decision to believe to make this coercive “saving” fair or just, simply does not match the emphasis in scripture on how you finish your race, over how you begin it.

Two core examples show this is what matters to God.

When I tell the righteous person that he will surely live, but he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, then none of his righteousness will be remembered, and he will die because of the iniquity he has committed.

Ezek 33:13

And Jesus in his parable

“But what do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go, work in the vineyard today.’ 29 “He answered, ‘I don’t want to!’ Yet later he changed his mind and went. 30 Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. “‘I will, sir,’ he answered. But he didn’t go. 31 “Which of the two did his father’s will?” “The first,” they said.

Matt 21:28-31

The simple way out of this problem is to open up a third possibility.  Instead of saying the apostate is saved against his own wishes AND instead of saying that he was never saved in the first place, even if lasting and deep evidence of new life suggested that he was – perhaps it is possible that a truly saved man can shipwreck his life of faith.

This may seem to fly in the face of “once saved always saved” but that probably ought not to matter if this 3rd way agrees with Scripture.  In fact, when we look at Scripture, Apostasy is a live possibility for every writer, and the Lord Himself.  Paul names two elders who “have suffered the shipwreck of their faith” (1 Tim 1:19).  These apostate elders are assumed to have had faith, and now assumed to be lost.  Jesus refers to plants from gospel seed that sprout up as really alive as any other seedlings. But some die and others produce fruit.  No mention in the parable of how the ones that are choked or die from shallow roots “were never really Christians after all”.

Maybe the best way to think about this, is that new life in Christ is like physical life.  Just like salvation, physical life is never given by merit.  It is bestowed as a gift from parentage which we did not earn or deserve.  But once given, this life goes a long way toward its own growth and flourishing.  It has internal unction, like our spiritual life lead and fed by the Holy Spirit inside.  Yet we are called to nurture this life, just like a man nurtures the life his parents gave him by exercise and good nutrition.

If one neglects the gift-life given to him, he may become very unhealthy.  If he refuses to partner with that Life, He may become so unhealthy that he looks just like a cadaver.  It would take a close examination to see any signs of life, but they may still be there.  But finally, would it not be possible, just as a man can choose to drive his own physical life away by suicide, that the believer can commit spiritual suicide?

All Calvinists would deny this is possible from verses that speak of the security of the believer (John 10:28 etc.).  Without negating those, we note that the entire book of Hebrews, was written to impel Jewish disciples to not defect from faith in Christ at risk of their own souls (Heb 6:1-6).  This one book by itself suggests true apostasy is a live option for every believer.  Why else write the book?

To suggest that the writer was only writing to Christians whom he knew could not defect from salvation, to threaten them into better behavior, casts a terrible light on the author’s motives.  A more natural assumption is to take the writer at face value: Heb 6:11-12

Now we want each of you to demonstrate the same diligence for the final realization of your hope, 12 so that you won’t become lazy, but imitators of those who inherit the promises through faith and perseverance.

Some Christians will disagree with this possibility, and that’s not the really important thing.  What’s most important is to realize that it is far more important how one ends their race than how they began it.  And that’s true no matter if you believe the bad end proves that the good beginning was false OR if you believe it could have been real!  The emphasis in either case is still, end well!

The author’s suggestion, that the end of your race is irrelevant as any indicator of your standing in faith, doesn’t add up.