Discipling the Nations - One Disciple at a Time

By Danny Lehmann

A wise man once said, "He who throws mud not only gets his hands dirty, but loses a 'lot of ground". Unfortunately, a lot of ground has been lost and much mud thrown back and forth between missions-minded Christians over the years.

This conflict has been over the two main aspects of our missionary call. On the one hand there are those who see Jesus' last command as simple and straightforward, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel". (Mark 16:15). With both the gospel events (the death and resurrection of Christ [I Cor. 15:1-4]), gospel promises (Forgiveness and eternal life [Acts 2:3 8]) and gospel demands (repentance and faith [Mark 1: 14-15]) defined clearly what further evidence do we need? Let's roll. Preach it!

Then there are those who point to Jesus' command to "...make disciples of all the nations..." (Matt. 28:19) which suggests to some degree a more detailed process of teaching people (peoples) how to walk under the Lordship of Christ. Those in this camp tend to see those in the first as being too heavenly minded to be any earthly good because they focus on the sweet by and by rather than the raw here and now. The evangelistic people of course counter with comparisons of time with eternity and love to quote Jesus' question regarding the relative value of gaining the whole world while losing one's soul (Matt. 16:26). And the debate goes on.

Babies and Bathwater

Charles Spurgeon, the great English preacher was once asked to reconcile the apparent likewise contradictory teachings in the Bible regarding Divine Sovereignty and human responsibility. His response: "There is no need to reconcile friends". Evangelism and social action are friends. We cannot take one without the other without destroying them both. To use an American idiom, both sides need to be careful not to "throw out the baby with the bathwater".

Success in discipling the nations will require a "both/and" mentality rather than an "either/or" posture on these two issues. The preaching of the gospel and the process of discipling the nations were both commanded by Jesus and both need to be obeyed. They have been commissioned by God to be partners working together rather than poles pulling apart. Two feet walking one step after another or two hands working together help to illustrate these dual ministries that have been described as "distinct, yet equal" partners.

Amy Carmichael, the great missionary to India, was once chastised by some of her missionary leaders for spending too much time alleviating the temporal suffering of the girls she was working with at her orphanage in Dohnuvur. In a kind, but spicy letter back to her superiors she acknowledged the primacy of evangelism, but went on to make the pithy observation: "One cannot save and then pitchfork souls into heaven ... souls are more or less fastened to bodies ... and as you cannot get the souls out and deal with them separately, you have to take them both together.”1

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army once cautioned his soldiers not to preach to someone with a toothache. His reasoning was that their dental pain was so loud they wouldn't be able to hear the gospel. His remedy: fix the tooth-then get 'em saved!

Horses and Carts

Success in discipling the nations will require a "both/and" mentality rather than an "either/or" posture on these two issues. The preaching of the gospel and the process of discipling the nations were both commanded by Jesus and both need to be obeyed. They have been commissioned by God to be partners working together rather than poles pulling apart. Two feet walking one step after another or two hands working together help to illustrate these dual ministries that have been described as "distinct, yet equal" partners.

Borrowing another expression from my culture, "Don't put the cart before the horse", I would like to suggest, however, that there is a "leading partner" , an "equal among equals", a "horse that pulls the cart" when it comes to what we do when we go to the nations. When I say leading partner, I don't necessarily mean in sequence. In General Booth's "toothache" analogy, the social action came first and we also observe that Jesus' Good Samaritan didn't stuff tracts into the pockets of the Jericho-bound victim!

I do believe, however, that Jesus, the apostles, church history and the Bible in general all point to the primacy of evangelism in the command to disciple the nations (see the Lausanne Covenant and John Stott's commentary). This can be demonstrated in three crucial areas and summed up in three words: History, Theology and Eternity.


Someone has said that the one thing we learn from history is that we don't learn anything from history. Let's hope and pray that doesn't apply to us. There is too much at stake!

Catherine Booth, William's wife and Army co-founder, had a favorite reply when her contemporaries would try to draw her into controversy over their theology or practice: "Souls are dying, souls are dying, souls are dying!" she would exclaim with a passion for the perishing multitudes. The Salvation Army (who could never be criticized as being too heavenly minded) began as a model of evangelism and social action working together.

General Booth once told his officers, "Go for souls and go for the worst!" while the Booths and their followers also fed the hungry, clothed the naked, sheltered the homeless, and worked against corruption in government and social evil. William's landmark book, "IN DARKEST ENGLAND AND THE WAY OUT" outlined a plan to disciple the nation in dealing with its social problems. The Booth's driving passion, however, was the winning of the lost to Christ.

Throughout church history it has been gospel-preaching Bible believing church planters and missionaries that have been the most effective at initiating social and cultural change in the nations. Below is a random sampling:

* Tertullian in the 3rd century wrote, "Christians support and bury people ... support boys and girls who are destitute of parents ... old people, and those who have suffered ship wreck or are shut up in prison."

In the Middle Ages, the Monastic Movements (the closest equivalent at the time to our modem-day missionary) of Benedictines, Celts, Nestorians, and later the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits promoted scholarly learning as well as agricultural advances. Well-known historian Thomas Cahill credits Irish monks with "saving civilization".

* John Wesley, the great British evangelist and church planter is credited by many historians with saving England from a bloody revolution that was endured by France just a few years before his time. He said, "Christianity is essentially a social religion. To turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it". A perusal of his sermons reveals his passion for the "national" issues of the day-wealth and poverty, war, education, medical ethics, sea piracy, free trade, slavery and the liquor industry. He was also one of the greatest soul winners in history.

* John Elliot, a missionary to the Algonquin native Americans, not only preached the gospel with zeal and translated the Bible into their language, but fought for justice and clemency for Indian prisoners, freedom for Indian slaves, and prevented Algonquians of being defrauded their land. In addition he established schools for Indian children.

* William Carey, the Father of Modem Missions and pioneer missionary to India, introduced the steam engine to India, taught the locals how to produce their own paper for publishing, built the largest printing press in the nation, as well as established the first savings bank. He preached against bribery and labored for the humane treatment of lepers. He lobbied to change the law concerning "suttee" or widow burning (no doubt many widows are grateful for that one!), taught Economics, Botany, Agriculture and Mathematics as well as win souls, plant churches and translate the Bible into several languages. Whew!!!

* In the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) New England missionaries followed Carey's lead and served the people's practical as well as their spiritual needs. Medical work was done on people who were suffering from diseases brought in by some of the influences from the whaling ships from the West as well as established schools and educational opportunities for the Hawaiian people. They also translated the Bible and other books into their own language.

* Many of the outstanding universities in Asia, including Yonsei University and Ehwa Women's University in Seoul, as well as more than a large percentage of the hospitals, orphanages, and hospices (like the Red Cross) were founded by evangelical missionaries.


Years ago, a statement made by one of my mentors, Michael Green, has resonated within me as a life lesson. "Most evangelists are not very interested in theology and most theologians are not very involved in evangelism. I am committed to both. With this in mind, a few crucial issues come up in our present discussion. What exactly did Jesus commission us to do? What did He mean when He told us to disciple the nations? What did His original hearers (the apostles) understand him to mean? What does the Bible in general have to teach us on the relationship between evangelism and discipling, the eternal and the temporal, the spiritual and the physical, the individual and the corporate, and the “secular” and the “sacred?”

First, lets examine Jesus' all-important Great Commission, given to us five times on three separate occasions.

1. Matt. 28:18-20 The Inclusive Mandate-"... disciple all nations..."
2. Mark 16:15 The Exclusive Mandate-"... preach the gospel to every person..."
3. Luke 24:47 The Message Mandate-"Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached to all nations"
4. John 20:21 The "Jesus style" Mandate-"As the Father has sent me so send I you"
5. Acts 1: 8 The Geographical Mandate-"...be witnesses ... in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the remotest parts of the earth"

Permit me the following paraphrase after a straightforward reading of the five texts: "Go in my Name into every inhabitable place on earth, proclaim the good news of forgiveness and salvation to every person. Baptize those who repent and believe and disciple them by teaching them to obey all my commands.” The above is the irreducible minimum that has to be done if we are to obey the Great Commission. Notice the preaching of the gospel is at the heart of all five passages.

Theological liberals have for years tried to excise repentance, conversion, baptism and obedience to Jesus as Lord out of the Commission as they formed a theology of discipling the nations without these crucial elements. To apply Old Testament principles of justice, ethics, etc. while hurdling over the entire New Testament would have been ludicrous to the original apostles. To reconstruct a society on biblical principles without the cross of Christ at the center of those principles would have been the farthest thing from their minds. To do so would be to build a kingdom without the King. To return to our "cart and horse" analogy this would not merely put the cart before the horse, but leave us with a cart without a horse!

Should we seek to improve the lot of people (Christian or non-Christian) and alleviate suffering whenever possible and wherever possible (i.e.-the Good Samaritan)? YES. Should we feed the poor, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and other expressions of the Father's heart? -YES! Should we, without partiality, love our neighbors as ourselves, be they individuals or nations? -Yes! Should we be "salt" as well as "light" and bring godly influences even into the "secular" societies (nations) in which God has placed us? -YES! But Biblical discipleship has to center around the Lordship of Jesus.

We've looked at the last thing he told us to do, let's look at the first: "Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God and saying, 'the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel... (Mark 1: 14-15). He also said the reason he came to the earth was to "call sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:32). Once when a man was overly concerned about domestic duties, Jesus told him to "let the dead bury their dead; but go and preach the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:59-60). When he sent his disciples out on a short-term mission, the first thing he told them to do was to preach the gospel (Matt. 10:7, Luke 9:2).

A short perusal of the book of Acts shows us what the original apostles understood Jesus to mean when he told them to disciple the nations. Their priority, especially when pioneering in a new location was to preach the gospel and win people to Christ. Then they would build them up in that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (see Heb. 12:14). On the day of Pentecost when the respondents cried, "What must we do?" Peter told them to repent and believe the gospel (Acts 2:37-38). This was how Peter applied his understanding and obedience to what Jesus commanded just a few weeks before.

Shortly thereafter, Peter healed the lame man at the Beautiful Gate and straightway told the people, "Repent and be converted that your sins may be blotted out" (Acts 3:19). Next, was the Saduceean persecution in which Peter responded first with his preaching of Jesus as his only way of salvation (4:12) and then with boldness: "For we cannot but speak of the things which we have seen and heard" (4:20). This was immediately after they were "...commanded not to speak at all nor teach in the Name of Jesus" (4:18). After they were threatened again, they prayed. What did they pray for? Boldness to speak the word (4:29).

After their backs were laid wide open with a whip, Peter and John "rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus". And what did they do upon their release from the prison and its beatings? "...Daily ... they ceased not to preach and teach in the Name of Jesus" (5:42).

The sixth chapter of Acts gives us their first real social test between Hebrew and Hellenistic people groups in a matter related to unjust distribution of food. The Apostles response: preaching and pray while they delegated the responsibilities for the food distribution to the Seven Hellenistic leaders. We then observe the Acts spotlight shines on two of those leaders. Stephen was found preaching the gospel (Ch. 6, 7) and became the first martyr while Philip became the first evangelist. He preached the gospel en masse in Samaria and individually to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

Meanwhile, the Hellenistic believers were "scattered and preaching everywhere" (8:4). In the next chapter we find the story of Saul's conversion. What was his response? "...Straight way he preached Christ in the synagogues" (9:20).

For the sake of space, we will skip to Paul's ministry and give a short synopsis. The first thing he did when he landed in a new town would be to proclaim Christ.8 Even in Athens, when he saw the city "wholly given to idolatry,” how did he respond? Did he try and change the customs and culture and work to reform the society? No, the text reads, "he preached Jesus and the resurrection" (17:18). What was the result? He was mocked and persecuted almost everywhere he went as he preached the gospel, healed the sick, cast out demons, gathered converts and planted churches.9

Let me take this opportunity to shoot straight. In the book of Acts, as today, the devil or his followers don't mind it when Christians "love" people, feed, clothe, or house them or in general do something to improve the quality of their lives. Then, as now, when sinners are told they need to repent, when selfish people are told to deny themselves and when the only Name that can save is boldly and exclusively proclaimed in a world of 5 major religions and hundreds of minor ones, its there that Satan's wrath gets hot!

Is it any wonder why we shy away from evangelism, not only in the "hard" places, but any places? Who wants to get rejected or persecuted? Our flesh doesn't like the "offense" that the Cross brings (Gal. 5:11). We would rather win friends than take the risks it requires to win souls. We are then tempted to turn those social action activities that Biblically were supplements to preaching the gospel and make them into substitutes for preaching the gospel. Read any book on the history of some of the great missions movements and as one generation passes the torch to the next, it can easily be seen how we sell our eternal gospel birthright for a mess of temporal pottage. This brings us to the final and most crucial issue.


In the academy award winning Blockbuster movie "Gladiator" there is a scene in which the gladiator exclaims, "What we do in life will echo in eternity. " This phrase, or at least something similar, should be in the forefront of every missions-minded person as they seek to fulfill the Great Commission. Words and concepts like "endless time", "timeless eternity', and "everlasting life" seem to short-circuit our mental capacities as we try to comprehend them. Struggle as we may, we need to constantly keep in mind the apostle Paul's admonition to "...look not at the things which we can see for the things which we can see are temporary, but the things which we cannot see are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:18). He also encouraged the Colossians to "set their affections on things above, not on the things of the earth" (Col. 3:2) while James reminded us that our present life is "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14 NIV). In light of the logical comparisons of time with eternity as well as the consequences of a hell to shun and a heaven to gain, an eternal perspective is absolutely crucial for those of us that are involved in missions. Even though it is impossible for our finite minds to comprehend eternity with the eyes of faith we can apprehend it. I once saw a t-shirt that said, "It's not that life is so short, but that you're dead for so long!"

Early in the last century there was a debate in theological circles called the "Fundamentalist/Modernist" controversy. The Fundamentalists, on one extreme had their eyes on heaven and had an attitude of "you shouldn't polish brass on a sinking ship" or "don't rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic" and consequently failed to care about the here and now. On the other hand, the Modernists were those who blatantly dismissed the eternal issues of the gospel and got focused almost exclusively on social action. Again, we must emphasize it is the both/and rather than either/or and that there are eternal issues involved in gospel work. C.S. Lewis said, "Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither!"

Scholars for years have debated the descriptions of heaven and hell given to us in the Bible. Is the new Jerusalem literally 1400 miles cubed? Are the streets really made of pure gold? Are the pearly gates for real? If fire is a physical property, how can it burn souls, which by nature are spiritual? Are the descriptions of wailing and gnashing of teeth, everlasting destruction and outer darkness literal? How can there be outer darkness and flames at the same time?

Rather than debate these issues, I would just like to keep the truth of Scripture in our face as we seek to nurture a both/and mentality with regard to the temporal and eternal issues in missions. As we seek to disciple the nations in the here and the now and bring the Lordship of Jesus Christ into every area of society, as well we should, we must keep the words of Jesus in the forefront of our minds. "What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and yet lost his own soul?" (Matt. 16:26)

It is said that William Booth wished all his Salvation Army officers could hang over hell for 24 hours prior to their commissioning. He felt this would stir them to a deeper commitment to evangelism. Leonard Ravenhill tells the story of Charlie Peace, a convicted criminal sentenced to die by hanging. On his death walk to the gallows, the prison Chaplain glibly read him some Bible verses from a book called "The Consolations of Religion". Charlie was shocked that a minister who professed to believe in the Bible could so coldly and professionally read about hell without so much as a tear in his eye or a quiver in his voice. "How can he believe that there is an eternal fire that never consumes its victim and yet be so unmoved?" Charlie mused to himself.

Finally unable to hold his peace any longer, the convict snapped at the Chaplain, "Sir, if I believed what you and the Church of God say you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living to save just one soul from an eternal hell like that". Charlie spent his last moments on earth with a passionless, unbelieving preacher and went on to his Christless eternity.

We may be tempted to think that such a focus on heaven and hell is some form of religious extremism, out of touch with reality and common sense. But how can we say we are eccentric and extreme in the light of the reality of eternal separation from God? The Psalmist said, "Horror has taken a hold of me because of the wicked that forsake the law ... rivers of water run down mine eyes because of the rebellious..." (Ps. 119:5 3, 13 6). Jeremiah spoke of bitterly weeping over the pride of his people (Jer. 13:17). Certainly one of our main motivations for missions needs to be the fact that the world is going to hell and Jesus Christ and his gospel are the only salvation to people assigned to such a fate. "Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." (2Cor. 5:11)

We must, like the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New, allow God to break our heart with the very thing that breaks his heart: the eternal destruction of millions of people (and peoples) who without believing the gospel of the Kingdom of God are headed for a Christ-less eternity.

In light of eternity, the value of a human soul, both example and overwhelming testimony of the primacy of evangelism in the Bible and Church history let us resolve ourselves to a more aggressive posture towards both evangelism and disciple-making. As we go, however, let us not neglect to make a certain kind of disciple-a disciple-making disciple-that we would multiply until "...the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth as the waters covers the sea" (Hab. 2:14). Let us also train them to be crosscarrying, obedient disciples who realize we preach the gospel of the Kingdom and therefore should seek to permeate the world with kingdom influences much like salt is the earth and leaven in the dough (Matt. 5:13, 13:33).

Getting to the Point

Allow me the following illustration: the Bible tells us that God's word is like a "two-edged sword" (Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12). I like to picture the two edges as discipling (training) and mercy ministries while the point of the sword is evangelism. All three move together at the same speed while the sword is thrusting forth into the nations. So the issue is not "which comes first,” but which is primary.

Surveys reveal that up to 95% of all Christians have never lead a soul to Christ10 while 86% of all those who become Christians were converted by personal evangelism through a friend, relative or neighbor whom they encounter where they work, live or play.' Most young missionary candidates will not be grooving with the movers and shakers of nations for a while, if ever, so let's teach them first things first. That is to disciple the peoples of the world by discipling the people of the world--one at a time.

I'll close with a word picture that gives that average disciple some vision for discipling the nations one at a time; two boys were walking on a beach where thousands of starfish had been deposited as the tide treated. As far as they eye could see, starfish lay baking in the afternoon sun teetering near death. One of the boys feverishly started throwing them back into the ocean as fast as he could, knowing he would save their lives in doing so. He was ridiculed by his friend for is seemingly futile effort: "Look at all those starfish. You're not making any difference!" At which time the rescuer held up another grateful starfish, looked his friend in the eye and confidently asserted as he chucked another into the sea, "I made a difference to that one!"

God's plan for "starfish" is that they would live in harmony in His glorious starfish kingdom where righteousness, peace and joy (Rom. 14:17) abound in every area of society. There the starfish will have beaten their swords into plowshares and every area of starfish society is under the Lordship of Christ. First of all, however, let's get them where they belong-into the saving arms of Jesus. If you, my dear reader, are in any form of missionary training or leadership, I would challenge you to take your shoes off of your beautiful feet (Is. 52:7) and lead those under your charge to follow you to the beach. The starfish are waiting.

"Follow me and I will make you to be fishers of men." (Matt. 4:19)


1In this teaching "social action" will be a conjunction for applying Biblical teaching and values into every area of society-ministry to the poor, the family, education, government, business, media, the arts, etc. 1 Quoted in Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Zondervan, 1983, pg. 241

2 "Although reconciliation with God is not reconciliation with man, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless, we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty" (Lausanne Covenant Clause 5).

3See "Evangelism, the Leading Partner", Samuel Moffett, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, pg. 575-577

4"In the church's mission of sacrificial service, evangelism is primary." Lausanne Covenant, (clause 6) "As we have seen it, (the churches mission of sacrificial service) includes both evangelistic and social action, so that normally the church will not have to choose between the two. But if a choice has to be made, then evangelism is primary" John Stott, Lausanne Covenant, an exposition and commentary (Melbourne, 1975 section 6)

5"How the Irish Saved Civilization", Thomas Cahill

Space here doesn't permit more examples. The historical record is clear. The people who have discipled the nations best were those who put the preaching of the gospel first. They labored to establish their converts as obedient disciples of Jesus and taught the social as well as the individual demands of the gospel. The corporate transformation followed for two reasons. First, their lives radically changed by the power of God through the gospel. Secondly, they were properly taught that Jesus should be the Lord of every area of life.

6 "Evangelism in the Early Church", Michael Green, Eerdmans, 1970, pg. 7

7"Service is what opens the door to speak God's word. Jesus served the people everywhere He went, but He never compromised His message. Today many missionaries have the service part down, but they don't couple it with the other duties inherent in being Ambassadors of Christ. Some missions ... receive large amounts of funding from the U.S. Government. They are often told they have to sign a document promising not to "proselytize". You would be shocked how many actually give up the right to preach the gospel to keep the money". -Douglass Layton "Our Father's Kingdom"

8Acts 13:3,7,16-21,14:1,7,25,16:14,17:2,11,17,18,22,18:5,19:8.

9In fact, nowhere in Acts is there any mention of any attempt by the disciples to skip or downplay individual salvation in order to influence or "disciple" society. Of course we know that post-Acts in history societal change in varying degrees (and with varying degrees of success) was implemented. The point here is that evangelism and church planting were primary in the minds of the apostles.

10D. James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion, Tyndale, 1993, pg. 4 11 Elmer Towns, Church Growth, State of the Art, Tyndale, 1986, pg.53

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