Discipleship and the Age of Accountability

By Shane Scott

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19, NASB).

The Greek word that we translate “disciple” (mathetes) derives from the Greek verb “to learn” (manthano). A disciple, then, is a person who is a pupil, and often in the ancient world the pupil had a special relationship with his teacher. To be a disciple of Christ is to have a special relationship with him in which we learn from him. Consequently, when Jesus instructed his apostles to “make disciples” (matheteuo), he was commanding them to lead people to a relationship with him in which they could be students of Christ.

When Jesus gave this Great Commission, he did not tell his apostles to “convert people” or to “make Christians,” though that is certainly the ultimate goal of preaching the gospel to every creature (Mk. 16:15). Rather, Jesus instructed them to “make disciples.” In Jesus’ view, becoming Christians and becoming disciples were one and the same event. Souls truly converted to Christ become his disciples at the point of conversion. Thus, Christians, disciples, and converts are all the same thing.

Rarely did Jesus implore people to “be saved.” Jesus did invite people to become his disciples, provided they were willing to pay the price:

If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Lk. 14:26-27).

When the apostles obeyed the Savior and took the gospel to “all creation” we never read of them “converting people” or “making Christians” out of some people. Rather, Luke tells us this about Paul and Barnabas’ work in Derbe: “And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch” (Acts 14:21, emphasis added).

In fact, as Luke narrates the spread of the gospel in the world, only twice does he refer to converts as “Christians” (Acts 11:26; 26:28). In contrast, Luke uses the term “disciple” or “disciples” twenty-nine times to describe those in Christ. Individuals of note were not identified as “certain Christians” but as “certain disciples, ” such as Ananias (9:10), Tabitha (9:36), and Timothy (16:1).

I am afraid we have lost sight of the basic link between conversion and discipleship. We have focused on baptizing people, converting them, saving them, etc. and rightly so (Acts 2:38). But if we fail to emphasize to prospects that they must become disciples, i.e. dedicated followers who will be students of Christ, we have told them only half of the story. I know that personally I have not emphasized the equivalence of conversion and discipleship, and as a result two of the three people I have baptized this year have fallen away, and a third 66convert” is at best in a very weak condition. If we do not ask prospects to “count the cost” before baptism, we are unfair to them and unfaithful to the gospel Christ wants us to preach (Lk. 14:27-33).

I think the matter of discipleship also directly bears on what we call the “age of accountability.” I was first baptized in water at the age of 11, but five years later I was baptized into Christ. I do not know how many people in the church have had a similar experience, but I have a sneaking suspicion there are many. When I was 11, I could read well enough to understand what passages like Acts 2:38 meant, but I was not mature enough to really comprehend the meaning of discipleship. If discipleship is an integral part of becoming as a Christian, then those who are not mature enough to understand discipleship are not mature enough to become Christians and are not accountable.

When we emphasize to young people that they need to be baptized and neglect to discuss what it means to be a disciple, we end up producing “converts” who have no idea what it means to abide in the word of Christ, love brethren, and bear fruit, all of which are marks of true disciples – true converts (John 8:31; 13:35; 15:8). Certainly, individual children radically differ in stages of development, and for some the age at which they become mature enough to realize the commitment necessary to be a disciple will be much earlier than it will be for others. But we are making a mistake to baptize young people without being sure they understand what Christ will expect of them as disciples.

Brethren, in our haste to spread the gospel and win souls to Christ, let us be sure we approach our work with the words of the Savior in mind and devote ourselves to making disciples. To do less is to fill our local churches with everything but Christians.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 24, p. 748
December 20, 1990