How To Be a Disciple

by Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.

This article is adapted from The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God, by Dallas Willard. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 22-29, 1998, pp. 430-439. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Willard offers a simply-worded guide on how to be a disciple, covering a wide variety of related matters, including a definition of discipleship, the meaning of vocation, the basis of ethics, the cost of commitment, the centrality of prayer and Bible reading, and the clarity that comes from decisiveness.

Being a disciple or apprentice of Jesus is a definite and obvious kind of thing. To make a mystery of it is to misunderstand it. There is no good reason why people should ever be in doubt as to whether they themselves are his students or not. And the evidence will always be quite clear as to whether any other individual is his student, though we may be in no position to collect that evidence and rarely would have any legitimate occasion to gather or use it.

Now this may seem very startling, even shocking, to many in our religious culture, where there is a long tradition of doubting, or possibly even of being unable to tell, whether or not one is a Christian. The underlying issue in that tradition has always been whether or not one was going to "make the final cut." And that has, in turn, often been thought a matter of whether God has "chosen you" and you are therefore "among the elect." Or else it is a matter of whether or not you have sinned too much, or are good enough. Needless to say, those would be difficult questions to answer with much assurance -- perhaps impossible to answer at all, because we are in no position to inspect the books of heaven.

It would take us far out of our path to enter into those hoary controversies. But fortunately there is no need. It is almost universally conceded today that you can be a Christian without being a disciple. And one who actually is an apprentice and co-laborer with Jesus in his or her daily existence is sure to be a "Christian" in every sense of the word that matters. The very term Christian was explicitly introduced in the New Testament -- where, by the way, it is used only three times -- to apply to disciples when they could no longer be called Jews, because many kinds of gentiles were now part of them.

Now, people who are asked whether they are apprentices of a leading politician, musician, lawyer or screenwriter would not need to think a second to respond. Similarly for those asked if they are studying Spanish or bricklaying with someone unknown to the public. It is hardly something that would escape one's attention. The same is all the more true if asked about discipleship to Jesus.

But if asked whether they are good apprentices of whatever person or line of work is concerned, they very well might hesitate. They might say no. Or yes. Asked if they could be better students, they would probably say yes. And all of this falls squarely within the category of being a disciple or apprentice. For to be a disciple in any area or relationship is not to be perfect. One can be a very raw and incompetent beginner and still be a disciple.

It is a part of the refreshing realism of the Gospels that we often find Jesus doing nothing less than "bawling out" his disciples. That, however, is very far from rejecting them. It is, in fact, a way of being faithful to them, just as chastisement is God's way of showing that someone is his child (Heb. 12:7-10). A good "master" takes his apprentices seriously and therefore takes them to task as needed.

A disciple or apprentice, then, is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or to become what that person is.

How does this apply to discipleship to Jesus? What is it, exactly, that he, the incarnate Lord, does? What, if you wish, is he "good at"? The answer is found in the Gospels: he lives in the kingdom of God, and he applies that kingdom for the good of others and even makes it possible for them to enter it themselves. The deeper theological truths about his person and his work do not detract from this simple point. It is what he calls us to by saying, "Follow me."

The description Peter gives in the first "official" presentation of the gospel to the gentiles provides a sharp picture of the Master under whom we serve as apprentices. "You know," he says to Cornelius, "of Jesus, the one from Nazareth. And you know how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good and curing all those under oppression by the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:38).

And as a disciple of Jesus I am with him, by choice and by grace, learning from him how to live in the kingdom of God. This is the crucial idea. That means how to live within the range of God's effective will, his life flowing through mine. Another important way of putting this is to say that I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner in which he did all that he did.

My main role in life, for example, is that of a professor in what is called a "research" university. As Jesus' apprentice, then, I constantly have before me the question of how he would deal with students and colleagues in the specific connections involved in such a role. How would he design a course, and why? How would he compose a test, administer it and grade it? What would his research projects be, and why? How would he teach this course or that?

That my actual life is the focus of my apprenticeship to Jesus is crucial. Knowing this can help deliver us from the genuine craziness that the current distinction between "full-time Christian service" and "part-time Christian service" imposes on us. For a disciple of Jesus is not necessarily one devoted to doing specifically religious things as that is usually understood.

To repeat, I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life. Note, please, I am not learning from him how to lead his life. His life on earth was a transcendently wonderful one. But it has now been led. Neither I nor anyone else, even himself, will ever lead it again. And he is, in any case, interested in my life, that very existence that is me. There lies my need. I need to be able to lead my life as he would lead it if he were I.

So as his disciple I am not necessarily learning how to do special religious things, either as a part of "full-time service" or as a part of "part-time service." My discipleship to Jesus is, within, clearly definable limits, not a matter of what I do, but of how I do it. And it covers everything, "religious" or not.

Brother Lawrence, who was a kitchen worker and cook, remarks, Our sanctification does not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God's sake which we commonly do for our own. . . It is a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to adhere to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer.

It is crucial for our walk in the kingdom to understand that the teachings of Jesus do not by themselves make a life. They were never intended to. Rather, they presuppose a life. But that causes no problem, for of course each one of us is provided a life automatically. And we know exactly what it is. It is who we are and what we do. It is precisely this life that God wants us to give to him. We must only be careful to understand its true dignity. To every person we can say with confidence, "You, in the midst of your actual life there, are exactly the person God wanted."

The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels show us how to live the life we have been given through the time, place, family, neighbors, talents and opportunities that are ours. His words left to us in scripture provide all we need in the way of general teachings about how to conduct our particular affairs. If we only put them into practice, along the lines previously discussed, most of the problems that trouble human life would be eliminated. That is why Jesus directs his teaching in Matthew 5 through 7 toward things like murder and anger, contempt and lusting, family rejection, verbal bullying. This is real life. Though his teachings do not make a life, they intersect at every point with every life.

So life in the kingdom is not just a matter of not doing what is wrong. The apprentices of Jesus are primarily occupied with the positive good that can be done during their days "under the sun" and the positive strengths and virtues that they develop in themselves as they grow toward "the kingdom prepared for them from the foundations of the world" (Matt. 25:34). What they, and God, get out of their lifetime is chiefly the person they become. And that is why their real life is so important.

The cultivation of oneself, one's family, one's workplace and community -- especially the community of believers -- thus becomes the center of focus for the apprentice's joint life with his or her teacher. It is with this entire context in view that we most richly and accurately speak of "learning from him how to lead my life as he would lead my life if he were I."

Let us become as specific as possible. Consider just your job, the work you do to make a living. This is one of the clearest ways possible of focusing upon apprenticeship to Jesus. To be a disciple of Jesus is, crucially, to be learning from Jesus how to do your job as Jesus himself would do it. New Testament language for this is to do it "in the name" of Jesus.

Once you stop to think about it, you can see that not to find your job to be a primary place of discipleship is to automatically exclude a major part, if not most, of your waking hours from life with him. It is to assume to run one of the largest areas of your interest and concern on your own or under the direction and instruction of people other than Jesus. But this is right where most professing Christians are left today, with the prevailing view that discipleship is a special calling having to do chiefly with religious activities and "full-time Christian service."

But how, exactly, is one to make one's job a primary place of apprenticeship to Jesus? Not, we quickly say, by becoming the Christian nag-in-residence, the rigorous upholder of all propriety, and the dead-eye critic of everyone else's behavior. This is abundantly clear from a study of Jesus and of his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere.

A gentle but firm noncooperation with things that everyone knows to be wrong, together with a sensitive, nonofficious, nonintrusive, nonobsequious service to others, should be our usual overt manner. This should be combined with inward attitudes of constant prayer for whatever kind of activity our workplace requires and genuine love for everyone involved.

As circumstances call for them, special points in Jesus' teachings and example, such as nonretaliation, refusal to press for financial advantage, consciousness of and appropriate assistance to those under special handicaps, and so on would come into play. And we should be watchful and prepared to meet any obvious spiritual need or interest in understanding Jesus with words that are truly loving, thoughtful and helpful.

It is not true, I think, that we fulfill our obligations to those around us by only living the gospel. There are many ways of speaking inappropriately, of course -- even harmfully -- but it is always true that words fitly spoken are things of beauty and power that bring life and joy. And you cannot assume that people understand what is going on when you only live in their midst as Jesus' person. They may just regard you as one more version of human oddity.

I once knew of a case in an academic setting where at noon one professor very visibly took his Bible and lunch and went to a nearby chapel to study, pray and be alone. Another professor would call his assistant into his office, where they would have sex. No one in that environment thought either activity to be anything worth inquiring about. After all, people do all sorts of things. We are used to that. In some situations it is only words that can help toward understanding.

But, once again, the specific work to be done -- whether it is making ax handles or tacos, selling automobiles or teaching kindergarten, engaging in investment banking or holding political office, evangelizing or running a Christian education program, performing in the arts or teaching English as a second language -- is of central interest to God. He wants it well done. It is work that should be done, and it should be done as Jesus himself would do it. Nothing can substitute for that. In my opinion, at least, as long as one is on the job, all peculiarly religious activities should take second place to doing "the job" in sweat, intelligence and the power of God. That is our devotion to God. (I am assuming, of course, that the job is one that serves good human purposes.)

Our intention with our job should be the highest possible good in its every aspect, and we should pursue that with conscious expectation of a constant energizing and direction from God. Although we must never allow our job to become our life, we should, within reasonable limits, routinely sacrifice our comfort and pleasure for the quality of our work, whether it be ax handles, tacos or the proficiency of a student we are teaching.

And yes, this results in great benefit for those who utilize our services. But our mind is not obsessed with them, and certainly not with having appreciation from them. We do the job well because that is what Jesus would like, and we admire and love him. It is what he would do. We "do our work with soul [ex psyche], to the Lord, not to men" (Col. 3:23). "It is the Lord Christ you serve" (v. 25). As his apprentices, we are personally interacting with him as we do our job, and he is with us, as he promised, to teach us how to do it best.

Few have illustrated this better than Kirby Puckett, for 13 years center fielder for the Minnesota Twins baseball team. He had a career batting average of .318, made the All-Star lineup ten years in a row, and won six Golden Gloves for defensive play. He was one of the most loved men ever to play the game, and a well-known Christian.

Dennis Martinez, pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, once crushed the left side of Kirby's face with a pitch. Martinez assumed that Kirby would hate him. But when he had recovered a bit, Kirby called Martinez "my good friend" and blamed himself for not getting out of the way of the fastball. He was an outstanding community leader for good causes, and expressed his faith naturally in words that matched his life. Everyone knew who Kirby was trusting and why he would not hate someone who had injured him. He was living in God's world and relying upon it.

One who does not know this way of "job discipleship" by experience cannot begin to imagine what release and help and joy there is in it. And to repeat the crucial point: if we restrict our discipleship to special religious times, the majority of our waking hours will be isolated from the manifest presence of the kingdom in our lives. Those waking hours will be times when we are on our own on our job. Our time at work -- even religious work -- will turn out to be a "holiday from God."

On the other hand, if you dislike or even hate your job, a condition epidemic in our culture, the quickest way out of that job, or to joy in it, is to do as Jesus would. This is the very heart of discipleship, and we cannot effectively be an apprentice of Jesus without integrating our job into the kingdom among us.

If, as we have seen, a disciple of Jesus is one who is with Jesus, learning to be like him, what is the condition of soul that would bring us to choose that condition? What would be the thinking, the convictions about reality, that would lead someone to choose discipleship to him?

Obviously one would feel great admiration and love, would really believe that Jesus is the most magnificent person who has ever lived. One would be quite sure that to belong to him, to be taken into what he is doing throughout this world so that it becomes your life, is the greatest opportunity one will ever have.

Jesus gave us two parables to illustrate the condition of soul that leads to becoming a disciple. Actually it turns out to be a condition that we all very well understand from our own experiences. The parables also illustrate what he meant by saying that the "scribe" of the kingdom teaches from the ordinary things of life "things both old and new."

First, he said, "The kingdom of the heavens is like where something of extreme value is concealed in a field. Someone discovers it, and quickly covers it up again. Overflowing with joyous excitement he pulls together everything he has, sells it all and buys the field" (Matt. 13:44).

Second, he said, "What the kingdom of the heavens is like is illustrated by a businessman who is on the lookout for beautiful pearls. He finds an incredible value in one pearl. So he sells everything else he owns and buys it" (13:45-46).

These little stories perfectly express the condition of soul in one who chooses life in the kingdom with Jesus. The sense of the goodness to be achieved by that choice, of the opportunity that may be missed, the love for the value discovered, the excitement and joy over it all, is exactly the same as it was for those who were drawn to Jesus in those long-ago days when he first walked among us. It is also the condition of soul from which discipleship can be effectively chosen today.

Only with such images before us can we correctly assess the famous "cost of discipleship" of which so much is made. Do you think the businessman who found the pearl was sweating over its cost? An obviously ridiculous question! What about the one who found the treasure in the field -- perhaps crude oil or gold? No. Of course not. The only thing these people were sweating about was whether they would "get the deal." Now that is the soul of the disciple.

No one goes sadly, reluctantly into discipleship with Jesus. As he said, "No one who looks back after putting his hand to the plough is suited to the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). No one goes in bemoaning the cost. They understand the opportunity. And one of the things that has most obstructed the path of discipleship in our Christian culture today is this idea that it will be a terribly difficult thing that will certainly ruin your life. A typical and often-told story in Christian circles is of those who have refused to surrender their lives to God for fear he would "send them to Africa as missionaries."

And here is the whole point of the much misunderstood teachings of Luke 14. There Jesus famously says one must "hate" all one's family members and one's own life also, must take one's cross and must forsake all one owns or one "cannot be my disciple." The entire point of this passage is that as long as one thinks anything may really be more valuable than fellowship with Jesus in his kingdom, one cannot learn from him. People who have not gotten the basic facts about their life straight will not do the things that make learning from Jesus possible and will never be able to understand the basic points in the lessons to be learned.

It is like a mathematics teacher in high school who might say to a student, "Verily, verily I say unto thee, except thou canst do decimals and fractions, thou canst in no wise do algebra." It is not that the teacher will not allow you to do algebra because you are a bad person; you just won't be able to do basic algebra if you are not in command of decimals and fractions.

So this counting of the cost is not a moaning and groaning session. "Oh how terrible it is that I have to value all of my 'wonderful' things (which are probably making life miserable and hopeless anyway) less than I do living in the kingdom! How terrible that I must be prepared actually to surrender them should that be called for!" The counting of the cost is to bring us to the point of clarity and decisiveness. It is to help us to see. Counting the cost is precisely what the persons with the pearl and the hidden treasure did. Out of it came their decisiveness and joy. It is decisiveness and joy that are the outcomes of the counting.

What this passage in Luke is about is clarity. It is not about misery or about some incredibly dreadful price that one must pay to be Jesus' apprentice. There is no such thing as a dreadful price for the "pearl" in question. Suffering for him is actually something we rejoice to be counted worthy of (Acts 5:41; Phil. 1:29). The point is simply that unless we clearly see the superiority of what we receive as his students over every other thing that might be valued, we cannot succeed in our discipleship to him. We will not be able to do the things required to learn his lessons and move ever deeper into a life that is his kingdom.

The same lesson, with a different background, is taught in the last chapter of John, where Jesus is working with his chosen right-hand man, Simon Peter. Peter had had a disastrous breakdown in his allegiance, as we know. But Jesus knew his man. Jesus prayed for Peter that his faith would not disappear. And it did not disappear. But Peter needed to grow in clarity about where he actually stood.

Jesus uses a fine play on the words we translate "love" just to help him get that clarity. After their breakfast on the beach, Jesus says to him, "Peter, do you love me more than these?" Perhaps he was pointing to the boat and fishing equipment, which had been Peter's livelihood, or perhaps to co-workers, friends or family standing around. And he uses here a form of the word agape, for the highest kind of love. Peter replies, "Yes, Lord, you know I love you." But in his reply he uses the word philo, that is, love of friend to friend. Jesus tells him, "Feed my lambs" (John 21:15).

The exact exchange is then repeated, except now Jesus says, "Shepherd my young sheep." This is not wasted time and breath. You want to understand that Jesus is teaching, bringing his student to clarity and a decision based thereon. Repetition and rephrasing are a way of deepening impact.

Then a third time Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" But this time he himself switches to philo. In other words he accepted the level where Peter was. But Peter was grieved that he kept asking, and perhaps also grieved at his own lack of agape. He replies, "Lord, you know everything, and you know that I love (philo) you." He acknowledged with sadness that Jesus knew exactly what the quality and level of his love was.

But Jesus nevertheless charges him with the responsibility of feeding his young sheep. And then he also proceeds to explain to him that his calling will mean death by crucifixion in his old age. Peter was then in a position to make his choice. He made his choice, and he never again turned back. He embraced the treasure and understood what an incredible bargain he was getting, crucifixion and all. He lived his life "believing in him, exulting with unutterable joy filled with glory" (1 Pet. 1:8). Peter thus came to understand this to be the natural condition of the disciple's soul, though he knew from experience it does not come quickly or easily.

Given clarity about the condition of soul that leads to choosing discipleship, what are practical steps we can take to bring strongly before us the joyous vision of the kingdom? True, that vision can come to us at God's initiative, through experiences that may be given to us. In fact, God's initiative will always be involved, for to see Jesus in his beauty and goodness is always a gift of grace. And then, of course, there may also be a role that other people play. But these are factors over which we have no direct control. What we want to know is what I can do if I have come to suspect it would be best for me to apprentice myself to Jesus. How can we come to admire Jesus sufficiently to "sell everything we have and buy the pearl of great value" with joy and excitement?

Ask. The first thing we should do is emphatically and repeatedly express to Jesus our desire to see him more fully as he really is. Remember, the rule of the kingdom is to ask. We ask to see him, not just as he is represented in the Gospels, but also as he has lived and lives through history and now, and in his reality as the one who literally holds the universe in existence. He will certainly be aware of our request, just as you would be aware of anyone expressing his or her desires to you in your house.

We should make our expression of desire a solemn occasion, giving at least a number of quiet hours or a day to it. It will also be good to write down our prayer for his help in seeing him. We should do this privately, of course, but then we should share what we have done with a knowledgeable minister or friend who could pray with us and talk with us about what we are doing.

Second, we should use every means at our disposal to come to see him more fully Several things might be mentioned here, but there are two in particular, and they are keyed to one of the most well-known statements Jesus ever made. In John 8 he says to those around him, "If you dwell in my word, you really are my apprentices. And you will know the truth, and the truth will liberate you." As the context makes clear, he is saying that we will be liberated from all of the bondage that is in human life through sin, and especially from that of self-righteous religion. Positively, we will be liberated into life in the kingdom of God.

And what does "dwelling or continuing" in his word mean? It means to center our lives upon his good news about the kingdom among us, about who is really well-off and who is not, and about true goodness of heart and how it expresses itself in action. We will fill our souls with the written Gospels. We will devote our attention to these teachings, in private study and inquiry as well as public instruction. And, negatively, we will refuse to devote our mental space and energy to the fruitless, even stupefying and degrading stuff that constantly clamors for our attention. We will attend to it only enough to avoid it.

But dwelling in his word is not just intensive and continuous study of the Gospels, though it is that. It is also puffing them into practice. To dwell in his word we must know it: know what it is and what it means. But we really dwell in it by putting it into practice. Of course, we shall do so very imperfectly at first. At that point we have perhaps not even come to be a committed disciple. We are only thinking about how to become one. Nevertheless, we can count on Jesus to meet us in our admittedly imperfect efforts to put his word into practice.

Where his word is, there he is. He does not leave his words to stand alone in the world. And his loveliness and strength will certainly be personally revealed to those who will simply make the effort to do what his words indicate.

In these efforts to see Jesus more clearly we should not dabble but be thoughtfully serious. We should find a reliable and readable version of the four Gospels, such as the Revised New English Bible or the New Revised Standard Version. The Living Bible is also good, but it probably should be read with one of the other versions. If we can plan a week in a comfortable retreat, or at least several days, then we can read through the four Gospels repeatedly, jotting down notes and thoughts on a pad as we go.

If over a period of several days or weeks we were to read the Gospels through as many times as we could, consistent with sensible rest and relaxation, that alone would enable us to see Jesus with a clarity that can make the full transition into discipleship possible. We can count on him to meet us in that transition and not leave us to struggle with it on our own, for he is far more interested in it than we can ever be. He always sees clearly what is at issue. We rarely do.

There are a few other things we can do that will help us toward discipleship to Jesus -- not least, seriously looking at the lives of others who truly have apprenticed themselves to him. Often his radiance in such people gives us very bright and strong impressions of his own greatness. To look closely at a St. Francis, a John Wesley, a David Brainerd, an Albert Schweitzer or one of his many well-known Teresas, for example, is to see something that elevates our vision and our hope toward Jesus himself. We should, however, make sure to soak our souls in the Gospels before turning to lives of his other followers.

But the final step in becoming a disciple is decision. We become a life student of Jesus by deciding. When we have achieved clarity on "the costs" -- on what is gained and what is lost by becoming or failing to become his apprentice -- an effective decision is then possible. But still it must be made. It will not just happen. We do not drift into discipleship.

This may seem a simple point, but today it is commonly overlooked or disregarded, even by those who think of themselves as having a serious interest in Jesus and his kingdom. I rarely find any individual who has actually made a decision to live as a student of Jesus in the manner I've discussed. For most professing Christians, that is simply not something that has presented itself clearly to their minds. Current confusions about what it means, and the failure of leaders and teachers to provide instruction on it and to stress the issue of discipleship, make that almost inevitable.

But in the last analysis we fail to be disciples only because we do not decide to be. We do not intend to be disciples. It is the power of the decision and the intention over our life that is missing. We should apprentice ourselves to Jesus in a solemn moment, and we should let those around us know that we have done so.

In William Law's book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the author asks "why the generality of Christians fall so far short of the holiness and devotion of Christianity." To set the scene for his answer to this question, he raises a parallel question. Vulgarity and swearing was then an especially prominent feature of male behavior, even among professing Christians. So he asks, "How comes it that two in three of men are guilty of so gross and profane a sin as this is?" It is not that they do not know it is wrong, he points out, nor is it that they are helpless to avoid it. The answer is, they do not intend to please God in this matter:

For let a man but have so much piety as to intend to please God in all the actions of his life as the happiest and best thing in the world, and then he will never swear more. It will be as impossible for him to swear whilst he feels this intention within himself as it is impossible for a man that intends to please his prince to go up and abuse him to his face.

And it is the simple want of that intention to please God, Law points out, that explains why "you see such a mixture of sin and folly in the lives even of the better sort of people."

It was this general intention that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, that made the goodly fellowship of the Saints and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop and ask yourself why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.

Now perhaps we are not used to being spoken to so frankly, and it might be easy to take offense. But on the other hand, it could well prove to be a major turning point in our life if we would, with Law's help, ask ourselves if we really do intend to be life students of Jesus. Do we really intend to do and be all of the high things we profess to believe in? Have we decided to do them? When did we decide it? And how did we implement that decision?