Focus on a Few Good Men

How God Does the Magic in Disciplemaking

Bethlehem 2020 Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders | Minneapolis

In the fall of 1999, I was a freshman at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina. Like most schools, we had certain dorms set aside for the freshmen. Other than the “resident assistant,” and his roommate, and a pair of sophomore “freshman advisors” that the university thoughtfully placed on every hall, we were all freshmen.

But there was an oddity about my assignment in the basement of Blackwell Hall: there was an apartment for three upperclassmen on the end of our floor. Perhaps it had been the residence of the building supervisor in previous ages, but in the fall of 1999, the apartment had become a spot where upperclassmen could apply to live. It was roomy, and much better than living in the normal freshmen rooms, but it was unimpressive compared to the new North Village apartments on the other side of campus, where the rest of the juniors and seniors lived. Far and away most upperclassmen wanted to live across campus in North Village, not with the freshmen.

But there were three juniors at the end of my hall who were not normal upperclassmen. And they had something significant in common. They were being discipled by a thirtysomething staffer with a Reformed ministry called Campus Outreach. His name was Ken. And as Ken invested in these men — Nate, Mark, and Faamata — they wanted, in turn, to invest in others, as Ken was doing for them. They wanted to live out the vision for multiplying their lives, through disciple-making, that Paul vocalizes for his disciple Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2:

What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

So, these three juniors, instead of retreating to the new North Village and its obvious attraction, lived in a freshman dorm, with a door to their apartment on our hall. And it would be hard for me to overstate the impact of these three men, under God, on me as a freshman in college, and on my life since. They befriended me. Invited me to Campus Outreach events. Dragged me to 6:00am prayer meetings. And Faamata in particular drew me into a small Bible study with freshmen on our hall that grew into a regular discipling relationship with him for three or four of us.

At Furman, that freshman year, and then into my sophomore year, there were a handful of guys, a few years older than me in life and in the faith, that showed me what it was like to live as a Christian in college and into adulthood. And among them, Faamata took a kind of specific responsibility for me. He was like a spiritual personal trainer. Or you might say a custom teacher of the basics of the Christian faith to my specific needs and sins and opportunities for growth in grace. He became a kind of spiritual parent. It was a mentor-mentee relationship, in which, in the general context of friendship, he was intentional to speak truth into my life and walk with me on the path of sanctification for two especially formative years.

What Is Disciple-Making?

Disciple-making, as I’m using the term, is the process in which a maturing believer invests himself, for a particular period of time, in one or just a few younger believers, in order to help their growth in the faith — including helping them also to invest in others who will invest in others.

It’s especially vital for new and young believers. A discipler is like a personal trainer to help get you going. The goal isn’t to always have the personal trainer watching over you, but to learn spiritual health and fitness for yourself and then be able to help others. I’m not an advocate necessarily of the mentality “always have your Paul and always have your Timothy,” which I think overstates the enduring need for a Paul, even if it rightly pushes us to remain ever vigilant to look for and invest in Timothys. New believers don’t need a Timothy right away; they just need a Paul. And more mature believers don’t necessarily always need a Paul, but I sure want to encourage them to find some Timothy to invest in.

Such disciple-making requires both some minimal structure and margin to let life happen. It’s both engineered and organic, trellis and vine, truth-speaking and life-sharing. Quantity time is the soil in which quality time grows. The vast majority of Jesus’s time with his men wasn’t formal. Mark 3:14 even says, “he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him.” We too need to “be with them” to have the kind of effect Jesus had on his men, which the authorities saw in Acts 4:13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”

Calling All Pastors

While at Furman, I learned to do the same. As a junior, I lived on a freshman hall, invested in a few particular men, and sought to be for them what Faamata had been for me. Then in 2003, I moved here to Minneapolis, with Ken and some other Campus Outreach staff, and for four years lived at the University of Minnesota seeking to evangelize and disciple men in that vision Paul gave Timothy about raising up “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

Now, as a pastor, I’m blessed to labor with a team of seven others who take 2 Timothy 2:2 very seriously as a charge to pastors. We believe that the principles of 2 Timothy 2:2, lived out in a church over time, will produce disciple-makers beyond just the pastors, but we take that text as a mandate first and foremost to us as pastors. Pastors, amid all the other demands and pressures of your work (and it is unavoidably broader than simply personal disciple-making), don’t miss this vital endeavor: make sure to entrust the gospel to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.

As some of you may know, Robert Coleman’s 1963 book The Master Plan of Evangelism laid out a vision for such disciple-making in an era when so much energy and attention was going to crusades and revival meetings. Coleman was not opposed to big evangelistic gatherings; he was just adamant that they weren’t enough — or the main thing. Coleman talks about the “lifestyle of the Great Commission” and points us to observe in the life of Christ that his ministry revolved around his investment, his discipling, of his twelve men.

Jesus did indeed bless the masses with his public teaching, but he gave the lion’s share of his time to invest in the few, his men (the twelve), whom we call his “disciples.” He called them to a particular season of learning under him. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). For three and a half years, they learned under his personal tutelage and care. And having been discipled by him, there would have been little doubt in their minds what their Master was calling them to when he said, “Make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).

So also the apostle Paul, having been discipled by rabbis in his youth, followed suit in his manifest personal investments in younger associates, Timothy and Titus among them, and he encouraged Timothy to disciple the church’s next generation of leaders, and teach them to do the same (as we’ve seen in his explicit directions in 2 Timothy 2:2).

Coleman for Calvinists

Now, one of the many things God was doing in me in those first two years while being discipled at Furman — and this was a central thing — is the paper was being peeled back on the panorama of who God is. Growing up, I knew about his love. I heard John 3:16. I knew of his grace and something of his mercy, though I had a lot to learn about the depths of sin.

But the striking revelation about God to me in those years was his sovereignty. I had heard that word before. My Southern Baptist home church was not opposed to the word sovereignty. We believed it. But with some help from Campus Outreach and Faamata and John Piper, I began to see, for the first time, what Jonathan Edwards called “the absolute sovereignty of God.”

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)

He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand. (Daniel 4:35)

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)

All things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16–17)

So, I became in those days what some people call a “Calvinist.” For me there was no explicit dependence on John Calvin. That’s just what the term seemed to be for people like me who believed, with manifest biblical backing, that God is sovereign over all, including the human will — which has big-time implications for disciple-making. That’s what this session is about.

I was not alone in my newfound Calvinism in Campus Outreach. In fact, I would come to learn that it is a Reformed ministry, which very much includes this vision of God in his exhaustive control, authority, and presence — that my will and choices are real, and I am responsible for them, but that does not mean they are somehow outside the sovereign hand and plan of God. God is sovereign over all — and “all” means all.

I mention Robert Coleman and The Master Plan of Evangelism because we Campus Outreach Calvinists didn’t shy away from getting help from Coleman’s vision, even though he himself was an Arminian, not a Calvinist. In fact, my wife and I have twin 9-year-old boys, and one is named Coleman — which is more of a tribute to Campus Outreach than to Robert Coleman, per se, but clearly we weren’t scared off enough by his Arminian views to avoid the name. And I’ve heard over the years of other Campus Outreach staff across the country who have sons named Coleman as well.

We clearly didn’t think that disciple-making was an Arminian thing. In fact, I think it’s a pretty Calvinistic thing to do. Like missions. Jesus didn’t seem to have any trouble putting his absolute sovereignty together with the call to disciple-making:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20)

So, this message is, in a sense, Coleman for Calvinists. Coleman wrote about disciple-making as “the master plan of evangelism.” Here I want to focus on “the Master’s power for disciple-making.”

Let’s linger in the Master’s power — he has all authority in heaven and on earth — and how it comes to bear in particular on the master plan of making disciples.

  • What comforts and clarity does it offer disciple-makers to know that Christ is sovereign over the human will, and sovereign over salvation, from election to calling to justification to sanctification to glorification?

  • How will it help us as disciple-makers in the very investments that we are making as spiritual guides and mentors to know and rehearse that all authority is Christ’s, and what are some of the precise reminders we need most for the process?

God Does What Matters Most

What I have found to be a pattern in my disciple-making efforts over the years is that God “does the magic” in disciple-making. He does the work that matters most.

There is an unavoidable awareness of self in being a discipler. I’m saying to another person, as Paul did, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1; also 4:16).

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me. (2 Timothy 1:13)

Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things. (Philippians 4:9)

You put yourself forward in offering yourself to disciple a younger believer. And God has been kind to show me, over and over — and for me without fail — that he, not I, “does the magic,” in disciple-making. I might plant or water, but he gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Few things in life have made me feel so much like a failure as disciple-making. On the one hand, it’s increasingly countercultural in multiple ways; it’s against the grain of modern life and simply hard to do. On the other hand, there’s the nature of the task and how personal it is, and how revealing it is of one’s own soul, along with the regular reminders that we cannot control the ones we most want the best for spiritually.

What I’ve been too slow to learn is that no matter how optimistic I am at the outset of any discipling relationship, or how much I think I’m ready to invest in this person, and how refined a plan I have for their progress and growth in the faith, I soon feel my weaknesses, failures, and inadequacies afresh.

But — and here’s the grace I’m here to tell about — as I keep making my little investments, one modest conversation at a time, one meeting, one discussion, then, it seems, God loves to surprise me with some big reveal. It’s probably small to others, but big to me. Often when I’m least expecting it, God pulls the cover off the work he’s been doing in the one I’ve been investing in, and I see, Wow, this is not the same person. He is more mature. He is ready and eager to give himself for the sake of others. He’s not living by bread alone but every word that comes from our Father. He’s praying with manifest delight and engagement. He loves the church and now sees these strange and wonderful people, in a real sense, as his true family.

It’s like Jesus’s parable in Mark 4:26–29:

The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.

Disciple-making, in my experience, is like that. We scatter our seed. We sleep and rise night and day. The seed sprouts and grows almost imperceptibly — we know not how. There are not clear cause-and-effect relationships between the various investments we make and the maturation and growth in those we invest in. But we keep investing. And God gives the growth. The blade, the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And all of a sudden, we see it and say, “God did it!” God did it again.

As with farming, we typically don’t see the organic progress in the day to day, but over the course of months — and then it’s amazing what a harvest can happen. All of a sudden, in a moment, God takes off the blinders and we realize what kind of growth has been happening right before our eyes, hidden in plain view, to show the glory belongs to him, not to us.

A common denominator of my disciple-making experience over the years has been that in the end the investment proves manifestly more fruitful than it typically feels during the process. The fruit of disciple-making often feels anticlimactic — and God does it that way to remind us who really does the work. (As pastor Chad Ashby recently wrote for us at Desiring God, “we often don’t realize that God has used us until it’s already happened.”)

This is just like God, to work quietly, inconspicuously, slowly, beneath the surface, and then — the child is born, the stone is rolled away, the scales fall off our eyes, and we see, seemingly all of a sudden, what he’s been patiently doing, on his timetable — not ours.

Our Master’s Power for Disciple-Making

So, let’s rehearse some of “the magic” God does in disciple-making. It’s true “we know not how” in full. But we do know in part. These are some of the theological underpinnings of disciple-making. Often when we turn to disciple-making, myself included, we talk pragmatics. But here our focus is on the theology (Calvinism) that is, I believe, the real magic for disciple-making.

One thing I hope this does, among others, is not only to inspire you to take the hardest step in disciple-making (to initiate the process), but to help you persevere when it doesn’t feel manifestly fruitful. This is normal disciple-making: it does not feel manifestly fruitful in the moment.

So, then, what is our Master’s power for disciple-making that draws us in and keeps us going? Let me highlight five, among others.

1. The Power of the New Birth

I’ll give you an anchor text, at least, with each of these.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3–4)

Those in whom we invest did not cause their new birth. It was God’s power: “he has caused us to be born again.” Peter says it again later in the same chapter:

You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God. (1 Peter 1:23)

So, first, the life God produces in the new birth is eternal life. “Imperishable seed,” he says. The spiritual life of the genuinely born-again person is an invincible life, joined by faith to the invincible life of our Great High Priest — “who has become a priest, not on the basis of a legal requirement concerning bodily descent, but by the power of an indestructible life” (Hebrews 7:16).

Second, the life God produces in the new birth comes “through [his] living and abiding word.” Don’t miss the place of God’s word both in the new birth and the life that follows. God gives life through his word, and he means for our ongoing spiritual life to be sustained by his living and abiding word. (Oh, the implications for disciple-making!)

When Paul celebrates the role of God’s word in the new birth of his converts in Thessalonica, he can’t help but celebrate the ongoing work of God’s word in them too:

We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)

The gospel word of God not only produces the new birth but remains “at work in you believers.” In the new birth, and in the enduring life that follows, which is the context of our disciple-making, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Which means we cannot make the word of God — in the gospel and in the Scriptures — too prominent in our disciple-making.

2. The Power of the Spirit

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:9–11)

This is almost unbelievable. I don’t marvel at this enough; do you? “The Spirit of God dwells in you.” We “have the Spirit.” He “dwells in you!”

The same Spirit who empowered Jesus’s earthly life and sacrificial death now has been given to us today. He not only works on us, and through us, but dwells in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 2 Timothy 1:14). He has been given to us (Luke 11:13; John 7:38–39; Acts 5:32; 15:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:8). We have received him (John 20:22; Acts 2:38; 8:15, 17, 19; 10:47; 19:2; Romans 5:5; 8:15; 1 Corinthians 2:12; 2 Corinthians 5:5; 1 John 3:24). The very power of God himself has come to make himself at home in some real degree, to increasing effect, in us. We are his temple, both individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19) — disciplers and our disciples.

He comforts us (Acts 9:31), guides and directs us (Acts 13:2, 4; cf. 15:28; 16:6; 20:23; 21:11), transforms us into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17–18), and empowers the everyday Christian life (Romans 14:17; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 12:3; Jude 20).

Brothers, as you seek to make disciples, remember they have the Holy Spirit. He dwells in them. How could we Calvinists not make disciples when our God wields the power of spiritual life, through his powerful word, by his powerful Spirit?

3. The Power of the Church

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us [that’s the Spirit], to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20–21)

Brothers, there is power in the church. This is no small thing. We’re talking here about the glory of God. “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.” The glory of God in Christ and the glory of God in his bride, the church. It is “through the church,” Paul says in Ephesians 3:10, that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”

Jesus founded the church, and disciple-making relationships are best served in the context of the church — and by that, I mean the same, local-church, covenant fellowship. Outside the church, disciple-making is going against the grain. That doesn’t mean that God won’t use it. But whenever possible, disciple with the power — not against it — in the context of the local church, in which we worship together and sit under the same preaching together, and encounter the same obstacles and conflicts together, and pursue maturity together.

4. The Power of Christ to Keep His Own

He [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)

Jesus Christ, the God-man, ascended in his glorified human body and sat down at his Father’s right hand, and “he always lives to make intercession for them.” As we disciple, we do so against the backdrop of omnipotence. The sovereign Christ will keep his own. We don’t have to keep them. That burden’s not on you. Play your part as he calls, and gladly roll the burden of keeping them onto his broad shoulders. God has begun his work in them and will complete it (Philippians 1:6). He will hold them fast. Praying Jude’s benediction over our disciples is good for the discipler’s soul:

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24–25)

When we pray like that for someone, we are right where God wants us to be in thinking for them and planning for them and speaking into their lives and playing our little part as God’s humble instrument. Which leads to the last power to rehearse here.

5. The Power of Christ to Use Weak Vessels

Jesus said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Disciple-making will help you realize your weaknesses — perhaps as much as anything in life (along with marriage). And knowing your weaknesses can be such a good place to be, because, Christ says, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

God can use us despite our strengths and successes. But all the more, he loves to use us in our weakness. Don’t talk yourself out of disciple-making, or give up prematurely, because you’re aware of how imperfect a discipler you are. When we are weak, he is strong, perhaps especially in discipling.

Heart of a Discipler

We could leave it right here. You can do the application from here. Rehearse God’s power and walk by his Spirit. But let’s close with one taste. And it’s an important one, because it’s central. Given these five amazing aspects of our Master’s power for disciple-making, what will it look like for us to pursue the master plan in light of the Master’s power?

Let me take you to one text — and it’s about pastor-elders in the church — because this text gets at the heart of the kind of disciple-makers we’ll be when we’re in awe of the Master’s power.

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:2–4)

Notice the three positive-and-negative pairs:

  • not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you;
  • not for shameful gain, but eagerly;
  • not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

This is our calling, brothers, in pastoring and in disciple-making: not to control, but to influence; not to domineer, but to serve; not to wear the yoke of compulsion, but to do it willingly, with joy. Which Peter says is “as God would have you.”

This is the kind of God we have and the kind of calling he gives. Our God does not act from compulsion and obligation and mere duty, but willingly, eagerly, joyfully. And this is our calling: to gladly lead with our lives as an example, not with demands on our disciples. To take every opportunity we can, with open hands, to influence them for Jesus’s sake, and die to every urge to control. And to not just slog it out, but to disciple with joy.