Salvation and Discipleship

By Dr. Rick Flanders

As He spake these words, many believed on Him. Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on Him, If ye continue in My Word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

(John 8:30-32)

His words were mysterious, and yet compelling and powerful. They were spoken in response to the arguments the Pharisees had made against His claims that day. It was the day He had rescued the woman taken in adultery from her condemners, and then had said, “I am the Light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” After His critics objected to Him referring to Himself in such a way, He expanded on His claims. He said that He is from above, that God is His Father, that He is not of this world, that if they will not believe in Him they will die in their sins, and that He even has the right to use the divine name “I AM” in reference to Himself (read John 8:12-27). These were astounding claims, but somehow they were convincing and convicting to the hearers. Then He spoke of a day that was coming when these very critics would lift Him up on a cross.

When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself; but as my father hath taught me, I speak these things. And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do those things that please him.”

(John 8:28-30)

Whenever Jesus spoke of His being “lifted up,” He was talking about being crucified (see also John 3:14-15 and 12:23-33). He said that the events surrounding His sacrifice at Calvary would convince even these hearers of His claims. His words were so powerful that many of those who heard him say them “believed on him.” Readers of the book of John recognize this phrase as describing the decision that saves the sinner and gives him eternal life. That’s what we see in John 1:12-13, 3:36, 6:47, and so many other passages that speak of believing on Him for everlasting life! The hearers believed on Him and were saved. To believe on Jesus is to depend on Him for salvation, to trust Him for deliverance from eternal condemnation, to rely on Him for the forgiveness of sins and eternal redemption. They had become believers in Christ, and therefore they were saved.

When He knew that they had trusted Him for their salvation, Jesus told them to “continue in my word” and become His “disciples indeed.” Then He promised them that if they would follow Him as His disciples, they would “know the truth” and the truth would make them free. This promise relates back to what they had heard Him say to the woman after assuring her that He would not condemn her (see verses 11-12): “Go, and sin no more.” When a sinner is rescued from the condemnation of sin, he can then experience deliverance from the power of sin in his life. He had just said that those who follow Him will not “walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” Release from condemnation ought to motivate the forgiven one to follow the Savior, and this life of commitment to Him will bring the power to overcome sin.

It is very important to understand the difference between believing on Christ for salvation and following Him in discipleship. These concepts are certainly connected, but the book of John makes it clear that they are not the same. Believers will fail to live a holy life unless they understand discipleship, and they will lack assurance of their salvation if they confuse salvation with discipleship.

Have you noticed that a distinction is made in the Bible between believers and disciples? In John 2:11 we are told that Jesus did His first miracle “in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory, and his disciples believed on him.” Back in chapter 1, we are told about the men who decided to follow the Lord Jesus, and in chapter 2, verse 2, they are called “his disciples.” Having seen His miraculous power, these disciples “believed on him.” They became believers.

In John 6 we read about a time when “many of his disciples went back, and walked with him no more.” It happened after they heard Him make some bold statements about Himself and about receiving eternal life through Him (read verses 47-68). “Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” They had promised to follow Him as their Master and Teacher, but now they realized that He wanted them to depend on Him for their very salvation, and they just were not ready for this. When they complained, Jesus told them, “There are some of you that believe not.” They were disciples of Jesus, but not believers. The prime example of an unbelieving disciple was Judas the traitor, and the scripture says as much in verses 64 through 71. The unbelievers (including Judas) among them were real disciples of Jesus. It is the Bible, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that calls them His disciples. They were indeed disciples of Jesus, but they had never believed on Him as their Savior. Let us learn what the distinction is.


Actually the distinctions between salvation and discipleship are significant:

  1. Christ’s invitation to salvation is, “Come unto Me” (Matthew 11:28}; His call to discipleship is, “Come after Me” (Matthew 16:24).

  2. Salvation is about the cross of Christ (Matthew 16:21); discipleship is about your own cross (Matthew 16:22-24).

  3. At salvation, you receive a gift, eternal life (John 4:10 and Romans 6:23); in discipleship, you give a gift, your body (Romans 12:1).

  4. The salvation decision (putting faith in Christ for eternal life) must be made but once (John 5:24, 6:37-40, 10:27-28); the discipleship decision (commitment to obey Christ) must be made again and again (Luke 9:23).

  5. Salvation is a sure thing (Romans 8:1, 8-11, 28-30, 33-39); discipleship is always in danger of failing (Luke 14:25-35).

  6. Salvation is about grace (Ephesians 2:5-9); discipleship is about works (Revelation 22:12).

  7. Eternal life is the result of salvation in Christ (John 3:16); eternal rewards are the result of successful discipleship (Matthew 16:27).

Salvation (eternal life in Christ) and discipleship (dedication to Christ) are simply not the same. When Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God, He called people to follow Him as disciples (see Matthew 4:17-5:1). The term “disciple” means a learner. A disciple commits himself to his teacher, as an apprentice does, in order to learn how to do what the teacher does. As the term “student” is used of a learner in relation to his subject (as a “student of history”), the term “disciple” is used of a learner in relation to his teacher (as a “disciple of Socrates,” or of John the Baptist). Many answered the call of Jesus to discipleship (as we see in the first books of the New Testament), and some continued to be faithful to that commitment, although the majority failed to keep it. Successful disciples somewhere along the trail came to understand Who Jesus really was, and trusted Him for their salvation. Peter is an example of a disciple who, although he often failed in his discipleship commitment, eventually came to believe on Christ and was eternally saved. Judas Iscariot was a disciple who not only failed at discipleship (he “fell” from apostleship according to Acts 1:25) but also failed to believe on Christ and was eternally lost. The end of the chapter that records the desertion of so many of the Lord’s disciples brings relation between discipleship and believing very powerfully before us.

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.”

(John 6:66-71)


As we have seen in the book of John, disciples of Jesus are not necessarily believers in Him. In chapter 2, His disciples are recorded as coming to believe in Him, and in chapter 6 many of His disciples are said not to believe in Him. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be committed to follow Him. To believe in Him is to trust Him for one’s eternal salvation. There is clearly a difference between the two, but it is also clear in the Bible that discipleship and salvation are not disconnected. First of all, those who follow Jesus as Master and Teacher ought at some point to believe on Him as their Savior. If one is truly committed to follow the leading, the teaching, and the will of Jesus Christ, he will be brought to the place where he sees his need to believe on Him.

Today there are many who seek to follow Jesus, but have not yet trusted Him completely for their own salvation. We should not think that there are no real disciples of Christ among those who have joined sacramental churches or affiliated with monastic orders or entered the Christian ministry, while not understanding the glorious truth of justification by faith in Christ alone. Many sincere religionists are disciples but not believers. However Christian discipleship was planned to lead to saving faith.

The men whom Jesus chose to be His apostles found that if they would follow the teaching of their Master they must recognize that His central teaching had to do with Who He is. “I am,” He said again and again, “the Bread of Life” (John 6), “the Light of the World” (John 8), “the Good Shepherd” (John 10), “the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11). He did not say that He gave them the bread of life; He said he was that Bread which satisfies fully and forever. He did not say that He was a light in the world; rather He claimed to be the Light of the World. He said He was the Shepherd of the psalm, Whom David had identified as Jehovah Himself. He taught that He Himself is Eternal Life. When the unbelievers asked in John 8:25, “Who art thou?”, certainly His disciples must have asked themselves the same question. The answer, of course, is that Jesus said He is God and the only Way of salvation. Those who were really following Him must accept these claims, and trust Him for their own salvation. They will either do this or forsake their discipleship.

This is what happened with Judas. He followed Jesus until he realized that following Him would mean worshipping Him as God and believing in Him for salvation. Although he probably did call Him Lord (as many vainly do who have never been saved—remember Matthew 7:21) in the three years he followed Him, the Bible never records Judas calling Jesus “Lord.” He is recorded only calling Him, “Master” (as in Matthew 26:25 and 49), which means Teacher. Judas was a disciple, but he never came to believe on Jesus as Savior, and eventually he betrayed Him. Discipleship should lead to saving faith, and refusing to believe on Christ requires the abandonment of discipleship.


Even though the definitions of a believer in Jesus and a disciple of Jesus are very different, it does not follow that individuals have a legitimate choice about which one they will be. People who have salvation in Christ have a moral obligation to follow Christ in discipleship. One of the most important calls to discipleship in the Bible is Romans 12:1, which shows us this truth very clearly.

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”

Notice that the call is addressed to believers (“brethren”). Saved people are called to discipleship in this verse. Notice further that the discipleship decision of dedication is voluntary even for believers (“I beseech you”). It is not automatic that a believer will follow discipleship. But then every saved person is morally obligated to give the Lord his total dedication (“by the mercies of God”). All of Romans before chapter 12 is about the mercies of God by which we are saved. Now, because of them, we who have been saved are urged to live entirely for the One Who died for us. It is our “reasonable service.”

There is a sense in which a saved person (a believer) has a choice whether or not to live as a dedicated Christian (a disciple), and yet there is a sense in which he has no such choice. A Christian is morally obligated to follow Jesus all the way. Dr. John R. Rice used to preach about “What It Costs to Be a Good Christian.” This sermon was about discipleship. When a believer is not living for the One Who died for him, he is not a good Christian. Living right is not an automatic result of being saved, although it is the duty of every saved person.

Salvation is the most important issue of life, but it is not the only issue. If it were, why would we need the epistles? Without questioning the genuineness of their salvation, Paul in his inspired epistles admonished believers to “Flee fornication” (I Corinthians 6:18), “idolatry” (I Corinthians 10:14), “the love of money” (I Timothy 6:7-11), and “youthful lusts” (II Timothy 2:22). The writers of the New Testament constantly call on the saved to repent of their sins, to be good Christians, to behave as disciples. Failure to live the Christian life does not prove that a person is not a Christian. Salvation does not settle all the issues of the Christian life, and wrong choices concerning other issues do not prove that the right choice has not been made about salvation. Surrender to God, love for others, honesty, purity, self-denial, submission to authority, and prayer are all issues true believers are to handle as disciples. When a believer is told that failure in discipleship proves that he isn’t saved, and that he needs to get “really saved” so that he will start doing right, the implication is that salvation is the only issue. If you are saved you will do right, some seem to say, and if you won’t do right you must not be saved. Misleading counsel like this can cause believers to neglect dealing with a sin problem while it confuses them about the plan of salvation! Believers must face the issues of discipleship without reverting to the issue of salvation if it has already been settled by faith in Christ.

In the book of the Acts, people became members of the church when they were baptized as believers (see 2:41-44). As the church grew, the membership was called “the multitude of them that believed” (4:32, 5:14). But these believers were also called “disciples” (6:1, 6:7, 9:1, 9:26, 9:36-38, 11:26). The reason is that when a person believes on the Lord Jesus and affiliates with His church (which every believer is supposed to do), he is “signed up,” so to speak, to be a disciple of Jesus. Will he succeed in this discipleship? We do not know for sure, but we know that discipleship is the only right life for a believer in Jesus Christ. Therefore church-members are called disciples, learners committed to following Christ.


The Bible teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ, and also that we are to live by faith in Christ. Faith makes all the difference both in having assurance that you are saved and in living the Christian life after you are saved. We see this clearly in the book of Galatians. Chapter 2, verse 16, says that “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” We are justified (made right in the sight of God) by faith in Christ (as opposed to earning God’s favor through our supposed obedience to God’s law). Then verse 19 begins a discussion about how to “live unto God,” and verse 20 says that this is done also “by the faith of the Son of God.” Chapter 3 begins by affirming that, just as we were saved by faith through the work of the Holy Spirit, so now we are “made perfect” by the Spirit through “the hearing of faith” (read verses 1-3 carefully). Although the Christian life is indeed about commitment to obeying Christ, and discipleship involves self-denial and sacrifice, they are never successfully lived out except by faith. Just as real assurance of salvation comes only by faith in Christ, victorious Christian living is experienced only by faith. Notice also these scriptures:

As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.”

(Colossians 2:6)

Whosoever is believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”

(I John 5:1-5)

Colossians teaches that we walk in Christ the same way we received Him: by faith. I John says that we are born again by believing, and that we overcome the world also by faith.

Whenever a Christian gets his eyes off Jesus and Calvary, and begins to look to himself for assurance of salvation, he loses what assurance he had! When we focus on how we feel, or how earnest we were when we came to Christ, or how much our lives have been changed, we have forgotten the basis of our assurance. We are not saved through anything we have done, or do, or feel. Real salvation is based on what Jesus did for us. When we focus on that, God gives us assurance grounded in faith.

Just as many fail to have blessed assurance because they have stopped seeking it by faith, many come short of victory in their Christian lives because they are seeking it through the efforts of their flesh. As we have seen, discipleship is about works, and it will be our works that will be rewarded if we succeed at discipleship, but nobody ever succeeds at Christian discipleship until they learn to live by faith.

Perhaps the strongest passage about the cost of discipleship is Luke 14:25-35. In it we find the Lord Jesus calling upon would-be disciples to count the cost (verse 28) before committing. There are several other strong statements made in the New Testament by the Lord Jesus about being His disciple, and it would be good for us to be familiar with them, too.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”

(Matthew 10:37-39)

Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.”

(Mark 8:34-35; see also Matthew 16:24-25 and Luke 9:23-24)

Some of the same ideas are taught in Luke 14, and the language there is possibly even stronger.

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”

(verses 26 and 27)

Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, cannot be my disciple.”

(verse 33)

The phrase “cannot be my disciple” troubles us, but its meaning is clarified as we are reminded of the stark difference between salvation and discipleship, even in this chapter. All of these words of warning were given to the “great multitudes” that came to Jesus and went with Him after He illustrated salvation with the parable of the Great Supper (see verses 15-26). In that parable the way to salvation was made extremely clear, and also very easy. The invitation to the feast of salvation is given to all, and it is simply, “Come, for all things are now ready.” God has done everything that must be done for a sinner to be saved. He has given His Son to die a Sacrifice to pay for our sins, and He has raised Him from the dead, the Victor over sin, death, and Hell. All the sinner must do is come and partake of so great a salvation! But as many responded that day to the offer of free salvation, Jesus turned and warned them of the cost of discipleship. Salvation costs us nothing because God Himself paid for it. However, discipleship costs us everything! In verse 26, we are told to give up people we love; in verse 27, we are told to give up our plans for the future; in verse 33, we are told to give up our possessions. If we don’t, we cannot be His disciples. What Jesus meant by these things is explained by the two parables of discipleship He told, one about building a tower, and the other about making war (read again verses 28 through 33).

In the illustration about building the tower, the Lord emphasizes how foolish it would be for a man to start building without knowing if he had enough materials or money to finish the project. People would mock such a man and say, “This man began to build, and was not able to finish.”

In the illustration about making war, the Lord points out how foolish it would be for a king to go to battle against an army larger than his unless he was convinced that he could win anyway. In both cases, the man starting into a venture should first count the cost, and evaluate his chances of success.

These parables picture discipleship, the Christian life. The follower of Jesus is building a tower, and he is fighting a battle. Will he succeed? Notice that the question is about finishing successfully. Will he begin but not be able to finish? Will he go to war, but only to be defeated? When Jesus said, “he cannot be my disciple,” He meant, “a person who will not forsake people, plans, and possessions will not complete the task he has begun; he will not succeed as a disciple.” The fact is that these three (people we love more than Jesus, plans we have for our lives, possessions that mean so much to us) are the things that usually draw a believer off the path of discipleship. Jesus tells us to forsake them all in our minds before starting out. It is not that we should “hate” our family any more than we should literally “hate” our own lives, but that we must love the Lord Jesus so much more than the dearest of our earthly loved ones that our love for them looks like hate in comparison with our love for Him.

Now the question of our likelihood of success comes before us. Will we make a success of our Christian life? Do we have enough to finish the tower? Can we defeat the enemy that is mightier than we? Think about these questions. The right answer is the same for both: yes and no. In our own strength and ability, the answer is “No.” The twelve did not do very well at discipleship in their three years of following Jesus while He was with them on earth. We do not do very well at living lives surrendered to Christ when we try to live for Him by our own power and determination. However, the Lord never intended us to live the Christian life, to fulfill the demands of discipleship, in our own strength. He said, “Without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). He called on those who came to Him for salvation to yoke up with Him for discipleship (Matthew 11:28-30). With His help, we can build the tower, and we can defeat the foe! When we live by faith, the answer is “Yes.”

Let us not forget the context of the words we have been examining in John 8. Jesus told those who had just believed on Him for salvation that if they would continue in His Word, they would be true disciples of His (verses 31 and 32). And He promised that the result of their continuing in His Word as His disciples would be that they would “know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” The incident with the woman taken in adultery set the stage for the unfolding of this teaching about victory over sin in the life of a saved person (read again verses 1 through 12). Salvation from the condemnation of sin is the possession of every believer in Jesus Christ. Liberation from the power of sin is the experience of believers who commit to discipleship, and live it by faith. Actually, we are free from the bondage of sin the moment we believe on Christ for salvation (see this in verses 34 through 36), but it won’t happen for us, so to speak, until we learn about it from the Word, and reckon it true by faith. This happens as we follow Jesus in discipleship (read again John 8:12 and 31-32).

No penitent sinner who has come to Christ need struggle over whether or not he is saved. No saved person need struggle in defeat without knowing victory over his sins. Jesus has provided deliverance from both the penalty and the power of sin, and we can have it by faith in Him.


Confusion over the distinctions between salvation and discipleship is doing serious harm in many lives today. People who have a hard time being sure of their salvation usually are having trouble because of preaching they have heard. Some otherwise sound preachers mix up the requirements of discipleship with the requirement for salvation, and are in this way preaching false doctrine. The requirement for salvation is simple faith. The requirements for discipleship include self-denial, absolute surrender to Christ, and the forsaking of all. Preachers must preach discipleship, but not discipleship for salvation. Failure at discipleship does not prove that one is not saved. Salvation is about “whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17). Discipleship is about “If any man serve me, let him follow me” (John 12:26). They go together but they are not the same. To make them the same is to ruin the plan of salvation by inserting the requirement of works. Let us rightly divide the truth of God, and thereby enjoy all the blessings of the grace of God.

Comments (2)

Thomas Newcomer December 26th, 2010 at 4:41 pm    

This is a most helpful explanation showing the distinctions between salvation and discipleship. It deserves wide distribution, and God’s wandering sheep need to be taught it.
Thank you, Evangelist Flanders, for this message, and for your many other timely messages.

Gian Romero August 9th, 2011 at 5:20 am    

Very helpful. I am a believer of this message but I am not going to lie that I myself has been scared by the lordship salvation doctrine because they manage to find scary verses from the bible. Thank you very much and God bless.

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