The Whole Commission: Why Making Disciples Includes More Than Evangelism


In the marathon at the 1968 Summer Olympics, John Akhwari of Tanzania fell, dislocating his knee and badly hurting his shoulder. Eighteen other runners dropped out of the race for various reasons. And yet, John later said he “never thought about giving up.” 

John finished last, well over an hour after the winner crossed the line. The medalists received their prize while he still ran under the cover of darkness. A reporter asked him after the race why he didn’t quit. John famously replied, “My country didn’t send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race.” 

How you understand the goal of any task determines how you carry it out. Few questions are more significant for churches to answer than “Why are we running? What is our mission?”[1]

Most evangelicals, I’m sure, would answer with something like “making disciples.” But what is a disciple? Is it something more than a convert, a decision?[2] The development and large-scale embrace of seeker-sensitive churches, para-church ministries, and multiplying church movements reveals our heart for the lost—which is good!—but it exposes at the same time our shallow understanding of the Great Commission. It shows we know how to start the race, but we can’t quite finish it. 

The Whole Commission 

The Great Commission is, no doubt, concerned with evangelism. We are to carry the gospel message where it has not been heard (“all nations”) to seal converts in the Triune God’s name (“baptize them”). 

In evangelism, the church takes the light into the darkness, calls lost sheep home, and pushes back the gates of Hades. Churches that don’t look beyond themselves toward unreached neighbors and nations fail to grasp the urgency of their message and the whole of the task. 

To state what should be painfully obvious: apart from evangelism and subsequent conversions, there would be no one to disciple. Evangelism is the tip of the spear—which is to say it is both chronologically and logically first—but it’s not the whole spear. 

Without “teaching them to observe everything [Christ has] commanded,” converts are hardly disciples at all.[3] So we must recognize that discipleship is also baked into the job Christ has given the church. He orders and expects her to teach his people how to follow him. This requires the Word (teaching them to observe everything) and the sacraments (baptizing them). This requires time. To state again what should be obvious: apart from discipling converts, no disciples have been made.[4]

God bids his people to join him in the work of redemption, which doesn’t end with conversion but conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29). We should expect the church’s work to mimic God’s, as she is his instrument for redemption. Christian work that stops at evangelism misunderstands not only what they’re called to, but what God is up to in the lives of his people. 

The Necessity of Conformity 

God has made known to us that his goal for sinners in the work of redemption is not merely to call them but to “[conform them] to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). It’s why he foreknew and predestined them in the first place. Justification is inexpressibly wonderful. But God’s work doesn’t end with justified sinners but glorified ones (Rom. 8:30). In fact, God has secured every blessing in Christ and applies them to his people in such a way that conversion to Christ without conformity to Christ simply isn’t possible (Rom. 6:1–10). Protestants have historically distinguished between justification and sanctification without separating the two. This is because both gifts necessarily flow through our union with Christ [5]. Christ gives them to his people through a spiritual union whereby he shares his life with them (John 14:19), and they mutually indwell one another (John 14:20). 

Jesus illustrates this relationship with a metaphor: he is the true vine, and his people are branches. The branches can only live and bear fruit in him (John 15:5). Significantly, because Christ’s life is so powerful and our union with him is so real and vital, it necessarily leads to fruit. Forgive the double-negative: it can’t not bear fruit. His life must yield their life. His fruit is their fruit. In fact, those who do not bear the fruit of obedience are cut off from Christ; they wither and are burned in the flames (John 15:6). 

Why would the vinedresser cut off dead branches? Because Jesus expects his people to know and obey his commands (John 14:21). In fact, knowing and obeying Christ’s words are partly how Christians remain in him (John 15:7, 10). By producing fruit, they prove to be disciples of Christ (John 15:8). Conversely, it is by lack of fruit that some prove themselves to only be superficially attached to Christ. Life begets life. It cannot not. 

This is what God is up to in the world: he is giving life and fruit, conversion and conformity. 

This is why evangelism is never enough. Christ is after a persevering attachment to him that is demonstrated by the kind of Christian fruit that can only flow from union with him. 

Evangelism without discipleship risks telling a series of lies about the Christian life. It risks telling a lie about converts: that we can be justified without being sanctified. It risks telling a lie about assurance: that we can have any confidence of our standing apart from bearing abiding fruit. It risks telling a lie about success: that professions alone are what Christ desires. Worst of all, it risks telling a lie about Christ: that he can be divided, as though we can have Christ the Savior and avoid Christ the Lord. 

No, what God is doing in redemption is uniting his people to Christ, so that their sin is overcome by his righteousness and their death overwhelmed by his life. This is what God is doing in the world, and it’s the work he has called us to join. When we evangelize and make disciples in the context of the local church, we tell a more wonderful story about God: one that demonstrates Christ as sufficient to deal with all of sin’s effects both now and forever. 

The work that God calls us to is glorious. Christ-loving and commandment-obeying disciples bear much fruit and so bring much glory to God (John 15:8). We make it our aim then to evangelize and present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28). Anything less starts the race but doesn’t finish. 

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[1] For a short explanation of the church’s mission, see Jonathan Leeman, What Is the Church’s Mission? (Wheaton: Crossway), 2022.

[2] On the difference between “disciples” and “decisions” see Michael Lawrence, Conversion (Wheaton, Crossway: 2017). 

[3] Christians will disagree on what constitutes “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.” Ministers and missionaries, however, should feel the weight of their own obedience. And because they’ve been tasked with teaching for obedience, they should feel the weight of their convert’s obedience. They are responsible for themselves and liable for the little children they’ve led to Christ (Matt. 18:6).

[4] No doubt, some Christians, based on gifting or vocation, might focus more narrowly on evangelism, and this is good. The Great Commission starts with evangelism and the church needs evangelists. But good evangelistmust undertake their work with the whole task in mind. Namely, they must help new Christians join churches so that they can grow up with and in the body of Christ (Eph. 4:1216).

[5] Calvin writes, “Since faith embraces Christ as he is offered by the Father, and he is offered not only for justification, for forgiveness of sins and peace, but also for sanctification, as the fountain of living waters, it is certain that no man will ever know him aright without at the same time receiving the sanctification of the Spirit; or, to express the matter more plainly, faith consists in the knowledge of Christ; Christ cannot be known without the sanctification of his Spirit: therefore faith cannot possibly be disjoined from pious affection.” John Calvin and Henry Beveridge,Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953) III, ii, 8. 

John Sarver

John Sarver is a pastor of Midtown Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.

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