Should I Disciple an Unbeliever? 

A previous Replicate TV episode on this topic (Should I Ever Disciple an Unbeliever) generated substantial feedback. Some questioned my assertion that we should only disciple believers. I encourage you to watch the episode rather than to read only the summary, which is merely a “cliff note” version of the recorded clip.

Evangelism and discipleship are two oars attached to one boat. With only one oar in the water, you will go in a circle. Both oars are necessary to reach your destination. Both are essential to carrying out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20).

The gospel is received through evangelism and lived out through discipleship. Evangelism without discipleship ends when the evangelist dies. Likewise, discipleship without evangelism ceases when the disciple-maker dies. Derwin Gray, pastor of Transformational Church, states, “If our churches are not evangelistic, then our discipleship process has not been holistic.”

True disciples make disciples, and disciples cannot be made without evangelism. It is a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” proposition. Evangelism and discipleship are exclusive and at the same time intimately related aspects of the Christian life. You can initiate what Robert Coleman, author of the Master Plan of Evangelism, calls pre-discipleship, but it is not discipleship in the purist sense of the word.

It is impossible to pinpoint accurately when each of the Apostles believed in Jesus as the Messiah. One major difference between them and us: the Apostles followed Jesus to the cross, while we follow Jesus from the cross. Another is the filling of the Holy Spirit in John 20 and Acts 2 (Jesus actually gave the Holy Spirit to the Apostles prior to Acts 2  [cf. Jn. 20:22]).

What was the message to which the would-be Apostles responded?

Mark 1:14 records Jesus’ exact words: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (that is, “here”); repent and believe in the gospel.’”

The four fishermen—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—dropped everything, responded to the message, and followed Jesus immediately.

The Apostles, right from the start, professed faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

Peter, in Luke 5:1-11, in a miraculous transformation, goes from calling Jesus “Rabbi,” or “Teacher,” to “Lord” after recognizing his sinful disobedience.

Luke 5:7, “They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on (that is, “henceforth” or “from this day forward”) you will be catching men.’” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”

Unbelievers won’t catch men for Jesus. Unbelievers can’t catch men for Jesus.

A better example, one that is more closely related to us, is Paul’s interaction with Festus and Agrippa in Acts 25-26. You would agree that Paul is not discipling these two unbelievers; he’s evangelizing by sharing his testimony and the gospel.

Let me bring it closer to home. You wouldn’t say, “I’m discipling my Hindu neighbor who has an altar in his home devoted to his 8 personal gods.” No.

You would say, however, “I am witnessing or sharing the gospel with my neighbor, with the hopes of him becoming a believer.”

Discipleship involves an object and an objective. The object is Jesus. The objective is to be “conformed into the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29). Until the Holy Spirit regenerates a person, he or she is hardened to the things of God, unable to take even one sanctifying step toward God.

Let me remind you of our lives prior to regeneration:
Ephesians 2:1-4, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

The Sinner . . .

  • is dead in sin,
  • actively practices disobedience,
  • is seduced by the world,
  • is enslaved by satan, &
  • is the object of God’s wrath.


“But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

“And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:3-4)

Consider the Great Commission in Matthew 28, our roadmap for making disciples (Jesus employed a model for making disciples.)

It’s not a logical order of steps to take. It contains three participles—“go,” “baptize,” and “teach”—each of which supports the verb “make disciples.”

“Go” is not a command. It’s a participle describing our daily routine of life. Jesus says, “As you are already going through life.” He anticipated us making disciples through the natural routine of life with the people around us.

Who are these people? Believers.

He says, “ . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He’s not commanding us, first, to make disciples and, second, to baptize them. He assumes that you are already discipling born-again believers.

How do I know this?

You don’t baptize unbelievers. Baptism is like a marriage certificate: it proves the relationship between two people. It’s an outward expression of your inward desire to follow Christ. Baptism is an act of obedience that proceeds from salvation, not precedes it!

The primary order of business in discipleship is to “teach them to observe all that I’ve commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).

Embedded in this phrase are several truths:

Discipleship . . .

  • must be centered on Scripture—the Bible is the textbook.
  • must involve teaching/preaching.
  • is more than a simple transference of information. Jesus doesn’t say, “Teach them all my commands.” Instead, he says, “Teach them to observe or obey all that I have commanded.” Information is meant to produce transformation.
  • without accountability—spurring one another on to observe and obey—is not discipleship.

A set, brief definition of “discipleship” may be helpful. I formulated it from three principal verses: Matthew 28:18-20, 2 Timothy 2:2, and Ephesians 4:11-13.

Discipleship is intentionally equipping believers with the Word of God, through accountable relationships, empowered by the Spirit, in order to replicate faithful followers of Christ.

Remember what Paul said to Timothy, preserved in one of the exemplar texts for discipleship: “What you’ve heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust to unbelievers” (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). (What’s the ideal size for a discipleship group?)

Is that what he said? NO!

“What you’ve heard from me in the presence of man witnesses, entrust (i.e., as something precious, not common) to faithful men (i.e., not unbelievers) who will teach others also.”

You could say, in essence, “Entrust to born-again believers the truths of the Christian life that you heard from me.”

I will close with a question: “Since an unbeliever is dead in sin, actively practicing disobedience, seduced by the world, enslaved by Satan, and an object of God’s wrath, what qualities could you cultivate through discipleship?”

Morality? Kindness? Compassion? Treating others fairly?

These qualities, albeit worthy qualities to possess, are not discipleship. Without a heart change, the sinner remains separated from God and destined for a Christ-less eternity. Let’s adopt a more biblical approach by evangelizing the lost, and discipling the saved.

Eternity is at stake!

If these ideas resonate with you, here are three options:

  • REACT. Do something.
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