Making Disciples

by Glenn Conjurske

Having read my sermon on “Forsaking All,” in the June issue of this magazine, a reader objects, on the basis of Greek grammar, to the use which I have made of Matthew 28:19-20. He writes,

“You seem to understand the verse as if it were a series of commands: Make disciples, baptize them, teach them to observe all things. If this were the case, then you would have a valid point.

“However, the Greek construction reveals that there is but one command in this passage. It is the verb: ‘to make disciples.’ The other verbs in the passage revolve around this one main verb. The other three verbs are adverbial participles: ‘having gone”Baptizing”Teaching.’ These are probably instrumental participles indicating the means by which the action of the main verb (‘make disciples of’) is accomplished. In other words, HOW are we to make disciples? We are to do this by baptizing them and by teaching them to observe all things whatsoever Christ has commanded us. Thus making disciples is not synonymous with conversion (the initial act of becoming a Christian), but rather making disciples involves a PROCESS which begins with baptism but continues with a total program of teaching and indoctrination. Discipleship involves far more than conversion and extends far beyond initial faith and baptism. It is a process that continues throughout the Christian life: ‘If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed’ (John 8:31).”

First, I do indeed understand the verses as a series of commands. Technically there may be but one command in the text, but practically there are four. Though three of them are participles, yet they are as much commands as the one which is an imperative. Nor can we obey the second command till we have obeyed the first. The Greek says literally, “Having gone, make disciples.” This construction is very common in the Greek New Testament, where no one would dream of denying that both things are commanded. All English versions, therefore, commonly render them both as imperatives, connected by “and.” Nor does the English stand alone in this. It is so rendered also in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and doubtless other languages. Earlier in the same chapter (Matthew 28:7) we find the same construction of the same verb, and read, “Go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen.” The presence of the word “quickly” establishes beyond question that the aorist participle (”Go”) is to be understood as a command. Among other examples of the same construction, I mention these:

Matthew 2:8—-Go and search diligently for the young child.
Matthew 9:13—-Go ye and learn what that meaneth, &c.
Matthew 11:4—-Go and shew John those things which ye see and hear.
Luke 13:32—-Go ye and tell that fox, &c.
Luke 17:14—-Go, shew yourselves unto the priests.
Luke 22:8—-Go and prepare us the passover.

All these employ the same construction of the same verb as is used in Matthew 28:19. “Go,” then, has the force of a command, regardless of its grammatical form. Bengel calls the aorist participle “this injunction, to go forth,” which is certainly what it is.

Next, my correspondent says, “These are probably instrumental participles indicating the means by which the action of the main verb (‘make disciples of’) is accomplished.” Observe, “probably.” There is no certainty of it. There are other possibilities just as legitimate grammatically, and more probable on other grounds, as I suppose. The order of the words can hardly be without significance. There is no doubt at any rate that going must precede making disciples, and it seems equally probable that baptizing and teaching them is to follow.

My correspondent further affirms that “making disciples involves a PROCESS which begins with baptism.” We think further reflection will reveal to him a fatal flaw here. Discipleship cannot begin with baptism. To all but the high-church sacramentalists, baptism must follow repentance and faith. It must follow decision and resolve. If these participles are indeed “instrumental,” indicating by what means we are to make disciples, then there is a fatal omission, or a fatal inversion, in the text itself. That omission can only be supplied by taking these four things as a series of commands, of which the second means to make disciples, which of course is to be accomplished by preaching and persuading them. Having done that, we are to baptize them, and teach them whatsoever Christ has commanded. To make discipleship begin with baptism can only reduce us to the methods of Jesuits and high churchmen. More on that in a moment.

I did not consult any commentaries when I preached my sermon on “Forsaking All,” nor afterwards when I wrote the abstract of it which appeared in the June magazine. Since receiving this letter, however, I have consulted a few, and find some very diverse interpretations. Some there are who, with my correspondent, take the participles—-a part of them, at any rate—-instrumentally, but with a result which is not likely to commend itself to my readers. John W. Burgon (a high-church Anglican) quotes verse nineteen, and writes, “Rather,—-‘and make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them.’ …the necessity of Holy Baptism in order to becoming CHRIST’S Disciple, and therefore to Salvation, is to be noticed, as clearly implied in the very terms of our LORD’S Commission to His Apostles.”

I observe in passing that Burgon, with virtually all men prior to the present antinomian age, regarded discipleship as necessary to salvation, though my readers will not care for his method of making disciples, “by baptizing them.” Yet how can we avoid this, if the participles are instrumental?

Adam Clarke views the text as I do, saying, “teach, maqhteusate, make disciples of all nations, bring them to an acquaintance with God, who bought them, and then baptize them,” &c. Adam Clarke’s judgement is not always equal to his learning, but his knowledge of Greek is certainly not to be despised.

Bloomfield takes the same ground in his Greek Testament, saying, “Here we have that great commission granted by Christ to his Apostles and their successors, with respect to all nations (both Jews and Gentiles) embracing three particulars, ìáèçôåýåéí, âáðôßæåéí, äéäÜóêåéí, i.e. 1. to disciple them, or convert them to the faith; 2. to initiate them into the Church by baptism; 3. to instruct them when baptized, in the doctrines and duties of a Christian life.” Bloomfield was both a textual critic and a commentator on the Greek text, and we suppose at any rate that he knew Greek.

So also another able textual critic and wise commentator, Christopher Wordsworth: “—-ìáèçôåýóáôå] make disciples of. ìáèçôå™óáé is preparatory to äéäÜóêåéí, which marks a continual habit.” That is, making disciples of men, which is done once for all, is preparatory to teaching, which is a continual process. But if making disciples is preparatory to teaching, the teaching certainly cannot be the means of making the disciples. So thought Christopher Wordsworth.

But supposing the text is indeterminate. Supposing it proves nothing about the matter in hand. We have proved from other scriptures, which are as clear as they are forceful, that the terms of discipleship are the terms of salvation, and my correspondent does not offer to dispute that.

He tells me, however, “Discipleship involves far more than conversion and extends far beyond initial faith and baptism. It is a process that continues throughout the Christian life.” We grant it, of course. But observe, if being a disciple is a life-long “process,” becoming a disciple is done at once, and is the equivalent of being converted. The terms of discipleship are the terms of salvation. “What shall we have therefore,” asks Peter—-for having fulfilled the terms of discipleship. “In the world to come, eternal life,” answers the Lord. To refer this to anything but salvation is to wrest the Scriptures.

But—-”If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed.” True enough, but let us adhere to Greek grammar. “If ye continue” is subjunctive, and presents a condition for future fulfillment, but the text does not say, “If ye continue in my word, then shall ye become my disciples.” No, but “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed”—-then are ye genuine disciples. The construction may be unusual—-perhaps even difficult—-to hang a present indicative upon a subjunctive condition, which is future. But we think the meaning is clear enough. Our continuing is the proof of the genuineness of our discipleship, not the means by which we become disciples.

Glenn Conjurske