Over the past few weeks, we have explored the Great Commission and the different components of it in an effort to obtain a clearer understanding ofJesus’ parting assignment for disciples. Thus far, we have seen that He expects us to “go,” to “proclaim the gospel,” and to “make disciples.” Jesus then indicated that making disciples consists of “baptizing” them and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
What is the difference between Jesus’ “baptizing” instruction and Jesus’ “teaching” instruction? As we noted in last week’s article, the “baptizing” instruction focuses on how one receives salvation and, thereby, initiates their life as a disciple. The “teaching” instruction focuses on how one gains additional knowledge about God’s will and, thereby, matures as a disciple. Thus, the “baptizing” instruction focuses on how one becomesa disciple while the “teaching” instruction focuses on how one growsas a disciple.
I believe the “teaching” aspect of the disciple making process is quite possibly the most neglected part of the Great Commission. I do not believe it is neglected intentionally, but, rather, unintentionally. I believe we often neglect to fulfill the “teaching” expectation of the Great Commission because we have a tendency to make the reception of salvation through baptism our ultimate evangelistic objective. However, to stop the disciple making process after baptism is to ignore an integral part of the Great Commission and to overlook an important biblical expectation.
Throughout the New Testament, spiritual maturation is identified as a biblical expectation of all disciples. This is evident in Paul’s writings. In Ephesians 4:15, he wrote, “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” and, in Colossians 1:28, he even indicated that it was the goal of his ministry to “present everyone mature in Christ.” The expectation of spiritual growth is also evident in Peter’s writings. In 2 Peter 3:18, Peter instructed his readers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Earlier in the same letter he presented a maturation process when he said, “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The expectation of spiritual maturation is most clearly presented by the author of Hebrews, who in Hebrews 5:12-13 indicated that his readers were expected to have matured spiritually by the time he wrote his letter but had failed to do so. He criticized their lack of maturation by referring to them as children who still needed to drink milk because they were not yet ready to consume solid food and then challenged them to grow up, saying in Hebrews 6:1, “let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.”
One reason spiritual maturation is so important is because the Bible does not teach “once baptized, always saved.” In other words, receiving salvation does not guarantee that salvation is permanent. We enter a saved state when our sins are washed away by the blood of Jesus in the waters of baptism (Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-7; Colossians 2:11-14; 1 Peter 3:18-21); however, Scripture makes it very clear that we can exit a saved state if we fail to remain faithful to God’s will.
This is apparent when you consider the implication of the preposition “if.” When this small, two letter word is attached to a phrase it makes that phrase conditional. As a result, salvation is frequently described in conditional terms by the presence of the preposition “if” in conjunction with salvation-esque statements. For example, Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples” (John 8:31), and Paul said that we are “reconciled…if indeed you continue in the faith…and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel” (Colossians 1:21-23). Both of these statements indicate that our saved status is contingent on something. That means that failure to “abide in [His] word” and “continue in the faith” would result in lost salvation.
As a result of this possibility, Jesus told us to not only make disciples by “baptizing” them but also by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” In other words, Jesus expects us to equip every disciple with a knowledge of His will so they can maintain their salvation. So, we should not be content with just leading people to salvation. We must be equally concerned with leading people to spiritual maturation. As one commentator said, “If non-Christians are not hearing the gospel and not being challenged to make a decision for Christ, then the church has disobeyed one part of Jesus’ commission. If new converts are not faithfully and lovingly nurtured in the whole counsel of God’s revelation, then the church has disobeyed the other part.”
Therefore, our marching orders from Jesus are to make disciples by leading them to salvation through baptism, and by educating them with Christ’s teaching so they will “attain…to mature manhood” and “may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:13-14).
Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1992), 433.