Discipleship: More Than Data Transmission

Scott Aniol


An important question every Christian must ask is, What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Very simply, a disciple will observe all that Christ commanded. As Jesus said in his Great Commission,

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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:19–20

In other words, a disciple of Jesus Christ will be characterized by certain behaviors. Christians are a new people of God (1 Peter 2:9) whose behavior should emerge from and reflect their biblical beliefs and values. This is why Scripture gives such attention to the behavior of Christians; it should be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15–16). Although Christians are new creatures (2 Cor 5:17) with new hearts of obedience to Christ (Rom 6:17–18), holy behavior is not something that comes automatically. Observing Christ’s commands, as the Great Commission explicitly states, is something that must be taught. In other words, true conversion is not simply assent to certain facts; it is a life-changing entrance into communion with God. It is “turn[ing] to God from idols to serve a living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9–10).

Forming Habits—Forming Hearts

Understanding that discipleship begins with evangelism but involves more, the question remains as to how Christians are shaped as disciples. Certainly much of what is involved with such Christian sanctification is coming to know more truth. Without a proper set of beliefs, one will not behave in a manner worthy of Christ. However, data transmission is not all there is to discipleship for at least three reasons.

First, Christian behavior is more than simply a collection of right beliefs. Jesus did not just say, “teaching them all that I have commanded”; he said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded.” Christian behavior is a collection of skills, and development of a skillset requires more than a certain amount of knowledge.

Second, making disciples is more than data transmission because the reality is that most actions are not the result of deliberate, rational reflection upon beliefs. Some are, but most of how people act on a daily basis is due to ingrained habits. We may understand the gospel and diligently learn biblical doctrines, but that will not necessarily make a disciple who is characterized by Christian moral living, especially if we have many habitual behaviors that conflict with biblical living.

A drug addict will still have to deal with his addiction, a petty thief may find himself unintentionally slipping things off the shelf into his pocket, and a lazy husband will have difficulty finding the energy necessary to help with the kids. Old habits die hard, even for Christians.

Third, whether or not people are acting on the basis of a deliberate decision or a habitual response, people ultimately will act not primarily based on the knowledge in their minds, but rather on the inclinations of their hearts. A child who is terrified of dogs will not pet one no matter how many statistics you give her about the docile nature of domesticated canines. A man whose heart is captivated by pornography will sin continually no matter how much he knows it is wrong.

Another way of saying this is that people act more based on their feelings than on their knowledge. The way many evangelicals try to combat this reality is to urge people to live according to their beliefs rather than their hearts, but it is not quite that simple. The problem is not that we have replaced what drives our actions with our hearts instead of our minds. We cannot help but be driven by the inclinations of our hearts, and theologians from Augustine to Edwards to Lewis all recognized this. If the intellect and the heart conflict, we will always do what we want to do rather than what we know we should do; this is the nature of humanity.

Thus, in order to cultivate holy living, we must concern ourselves with nurturing moral virtue through heart transformation.

In order to cultivate holy living, we must concern ourselves with nurturing moral virtue through heart transformation.

Transformation through the Word

This kind of spiritual transformation we’re after happens by means of the living and active Word of God, and God’s Word does not merely transmit data. God’s Word forms hearts. Let me explain.

God’s inspired Word is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). The sufficient Word has given those ordinary means of grace that, through their regular use, will shape believers to live as disciples who observe everything Jesus taught: reading the Word (1 Tim 4:13), preaching the Word (2 Tim 4:2), singing the Word (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19), prayer (1 Tim 2:1), baptism (Matt 28:19), and the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:23–32). The regular, disciplined use of these means of grace progressively forms believers into the image of Jesus Christ; these Spirit-ordained elements are the means through which Christians “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12–13).

This very recognition that the Word of God has ultimate power for transformation supports an understanding of discipleship as more (though no less) than didactic, for the Scriptures themselves are often not merely didactic. The problem is that a didactic conception of discipleship has led to viewing the Scriptures as merely a collection of didactic propositions meant to inform the mind. Yet this is not the case. The Bible is a work of inspired, inerrant literature, employing a vast variety of aesthetic devices to communicate God’s authoritative truth in ways that could not be otherwise.

The Holy Spirit of God inspired every word in the original autographs of Scripture. This implies that while the word choices, grammar, syntax, poetic language, and literary forms were products of the human author’s writing style, culture, and experiences, we must also affirm that these aspects of the form of Scripture are exactly how God desired his truth to be communicated for the formation of his people.

It is critically important to recognize that truth in Scripture is more than merely scientific fact statements. Christianity cannot be boiled down into a set of doctrinal propositions alone. The Bible contains many statements of theological fact, much of its content can be summarized in theological propositions, and doctrinal affirmations remain important for defining various aspects of biblical orthodoxy.

Nevertheless, God cannot be known fully only through statements of theological fact. God is known through his Word, and his Word is more than a collection of fact statements. It is inspired literature that employs aesthetic devices of the imagination to communicate God to us in ways that would not be possible with only fact statements. Since God is a spirit and does not have a body like man, since he is infinite, eternal, and totally other than us, God chose to use particular aesthetic forms to communicate truth about himself that would not have been possible otherwise. These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented.

Thus, the truths of Scripture are not Scripture’s propositional content that just happens to be contextualized in certain aesthetic forms. Truth in Scripture is content plus form, considered as an indivisible whole. To reduce God’s truth, then, only to doctrinal statements does great injustice to the way God himself has chosen to reveal truth to us. We must have doctrinal statements to inform the mind, but Scripture expresses God’s truth also through imagery that shapes the heart.

We must have doctrinal statements to inform the mind, but Scripture expresses God’s truth also through imagery that shapes the heart.

For example, there is a reason the Bible calls God a “king” rather than simply asserting the doctrinal fact of his rulership. There is a reason the Bible calls God a shepherd, fortress, father, husband, and potter rather than simply stating the ideas underlying these metaphors. These images of God paint a picture that goes far beyond mere doctrinal accuracy. They communicate something that could not be expressed in mere prose. They form our imagination of who God is for the purpose of both expressing and shaping right affections for God, which is at the core of Christian discipleship. The form of God’s truth forms Christian disciples.

Any good text or seminary course on biblical interpretation gives some attention to the fact that the Bible comes to us in various literary forms. However, while exegetes give lip service to the aesthetic aspects of Scripture, at best they often acknowledge the literary forms as a means to aid them in drawing out what they believe to be the more important “propositional content” of the text. They view the form as something they have to “get through” in order to “get to” the revelatory content and then restate metaphorical language as propositions. That didactic theological content, they believe, is what transforms believers. With this view, understanding what the literary form communicated to the original audience is important for interpretation, but not much more. The aesthetic forms do not influence discipleship, they do not impact the way Scripture is read or preached—every sermon is structured as if the text were epistolary, unveiling the assumption once again that discipleship happens merely with didactic instruction.

What this betrays is a post-Enlightenment, modernistic understanding of the nature of truth and human knowing and in effect denies the authority of what God inspired.

Therefore, if we wish to make disciples who will observe all that Christ has commanded, then we must recognize that this happens through more than condensing correct doctrinal statements from God’s Word; rather, Scripture embodies particular sentiments, affections, moods, and imagination through its God-inspired aesthetic forms, which are essential for the cultivation of Christian virtue.

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Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.