The Goal of Discipleship

By Steve Manskar

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, "I have come to know him," but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him; whoever says, "I abide in him" ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3-6, NRSV).

One of John Wesley's most popular publications was "The Character of a Methodist." It is his explanation of Methodism:

"A Methodist is one who has 'the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;' one who 'loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.' God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, 'Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!'"

In other words, Methodism is the means to the goal of a people who are forgiven and set free to love as God loves. Love flows through them for the world. They "walk just as he (Jesus) walked."

Wesley believed the goal of discipleship is to become like Jesus; "to have the mind of Christ and to walk just as he walked." The means to the goal is to act upon what Jesus told his disciples to do. His teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and summarized by him in the Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-40):

He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

John Wesley gives a helpful guide for how to make disciples of Jesus Christ who "have the mind of Christ and walk as he walked" in Sermon 92: “On Zeal.” The following paragraph is a concise description of the goal of the Christian life and the habits, attitudes, practices, and structures that help people reach it:

In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival. In a circle near the throne are all holy tempers;—longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, temperance; and if any other were comprised in "the mind which was in Christ Jesus." In an exterior circle are all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to. Next to these are those that are usually termed works of piety;—reading and hearing the word, public, family, private prayer, receiving the Lord's Supper, fasting or abstinence. Lastly, that his followers may the more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works, our blessed Lord has united them together in one body, the Church, dispersed all over the earth; a little emblem of which, of the Church universal, we have in every particular Christian congregation.

The Church

In the outer circle Wesley describes the Church as the community in which the Christian life is lived. He says the purpose of the church is to “more effectually provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” To provoke is to stir or incite someone to act. Wesley is referring to Hebrews 10:23-25

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Typically, the word “provoke” is used with anger, wrath, fighting, and violence. But here the writer of Hebrews and Wesley use the word as a means to holiness. He is saying the purpose of Christian community is to provoke one another to lives of love and good works. Faith in Christ must be shown through works of love, compassion, and justice. Otherwise, if faith does not compel good works then faith is dead (James 2:17).

We see this reflected in the words of the baptismal covenant when the congregation promises:

With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.[1]

This is another way of saying, that we are united in Christ “to provoke one another to love, holy tempers, and good works.” Baptism is initiation into the church and provides the ongoing shape of the Christian life. When the church honors baptism it is organized to provoke members to love, holy tempers, and good works.

Works of Piety

One of the ways the church provokes members to love is through the works of piety, which is habitual reverence and obedience to God. The church is where people come to learn, experience, and participate in worship, sacraments, prayer, Scripture, and other ways of connecting with God and his love in Jesus Christ, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Christian life begins with God’s reach towards you enabling you to respond in prayer, praise, hymn, confession, pardon, proclamation, sacrament, and service. Works of piety are the human response to God’s love for us. They are practices that keep us connected to God and his love. The relationship God wants with us is like the one you share with someone you love. The works of piety are the ways you participate in the relationship and grow in love with God.

Worship is like the time you spend with your beloved. It is being present to the beloved and giving your full attention and self in service to him or her.

The ministry of the Word is listening to your beloved’s story and learning who he or she is. Eating and drinking together comes naturally when we fall in love.

The Lord’s Supper is where God promises to meet us, to forgive our sins, give himself to us in the form of bread and wine. At the Lord’s table we receive the food we need for our journey with him in the world.

One of the ways we participate in our beloved’s life is through daily communication. You share the events of your day, your hopes, dreams, and fears with your beloved. In turn you listen to the beloved’s response and he or she shares himself or herself with you. Prayer is how Christians communicate daily with God. We share our lives, hopes, dreams, and fears with God. And we listen to what God has to say to us.

Searching the Scriptures is striving to learn God by reading and memorizing his story. This practice is like learning your beloved by reading the cards, letters, and other ways he or she shares his or her life story with you.

Love requires self-denial. To fully love requires setting your own needs aside so that you can be fully open to the beloved. When you love another you willingly set aside your own needs and desires to take on those of your beloved. Self-denial is how we “become what we love.” Fasting (or abstinence) is how Christians deny themselves and participate in the way of Jesus. By fasting, Wesley meant refraining from eating solid food for a day (For example: his practice was to begin his fast at sundown on Thursday, devote the day to prayer and Scripture, and break the fast with a light meal at sundown Friday). When we empty our belly and feel the discomfort of hunger we participate in God’s self-emptying love for the world in Jesus Christ. We also express solidarity with the poor and hungry people of the world with whom Jesus most closely identified himself (see Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; 6:20-26; 16:19-31).

The works of piety Wesley expected Methodists to practice are found in the General Rules. It is important to recognize the balance between social and personal character of the Christian life in his list of six essential practices that have helped Christians love God with all their heart, soul, and mind for millennia. Worship, the ministry of the Word, and the Lord’s Supper are social practices. Christians participate in them with fellow Christians in the congregation that gathers in the name of Christ. These practices draw us closer to one another as we grow closer to God.

Family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting (or abstinence) are practices that nurture your personal faith and love for God. These practices keep you in touch with God and with yourself through daily participation.

Works of Mercy

If a Christian professes love for God then that love compels them to love those whom God loves. Certainly, in the Wesleyan tradition, love for God is lived out by the way we love our neighbor as ourselves. John Wesley said,

… all the works of mercy, whether to the souls or bodies of men. By these we exercise all holy tempers; by these we continually improve them, so that all these are real means of grace, although this is not commonly adverted to.[2]

The practices Wesley called “works of mercy” are the ways Christians obey Jesus’ command to love their neighbor as themselves. He believed giving food and drink to hungry and thirsty people, hospitality to strangers, clothes to people who are in need, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners as much means of grace as any of the works of piety. In fact, Wesley believed that the works of mercy were more effective in conveying grace. I suspect this is because while works of piety affected only the persons participating, works of mercy open the heart of the person giving food to a hungry person and a hungry person is fed. Feeding a hungry person makes them more open to hearing and receiving the gospel of Christ.

Wesley believed Scripture teaches that Christians are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is a pure gift of God, made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also believed that once a Christian receives the gift of salvation he or she has a responsibility to “work it out” (Philippians 2:12-13). This is why Paul writes “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Wesley believed salvation is both a gift (justification) and a way of life (sanctification). Therefore, works of piety and works of mercy are necessary for us to keep the gift for which God’s son died and we so freely received. If we accept the gift, then our life must be worthy of our Savior’s death (Ephesians 4:1-3; Hebrews 12:14). The acceptable response to this amazing grace is loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind; and loving our neighbor as ourselves in practicing works of piety and works of mercy.

The works of mercy “form the Savior in the soul.” They are how we develop holy habits and attitudes Wesley called “holy tempers.” The Apostle Paul called them “fruit of the Spirit:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Loving those whom God loves opens hearts and minds to the grace that forms “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5) and equips to you to “walk as he walked” (1 John 2:6).

Holy Tempers

Wesley taught the goal of the Christian life is having “the mind of Christ” to “walk as he walked.” He frequently conflated Philippians 2:5 and 1 John 2:6 to make the point the Holy Spirit works in the heart to heal the brokenness of “inbred sin.” The habitual practice of works of piety and works of mercy within the community of the Church is how Christians cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work. Sanctification is the theological term for this process. It involves the transformation of affections and tempers.

Affections are what motivate human behavior. They motivate our desires and lead to behavior. Affections determine what we love. Tempers determine how we love. When sin rules in the heart the affections are turned inward upon the self and self-gratification. The heart is directed toward what the Apostle Paul calls “the flesh.” Self-centered affections lead to “works of the flesh”: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). When sin rules upon the heart the affections and tempers are focused upon the self and are opposed to God and God’s reign.

The good news is that grace is stronger than sin. It turns the sin-damaged heart towards God and opens it to the healing power of grace in the person of Jesus Christ. Grace, which is the power of God to overcome sin with love, opens the door of the heart to love in the person of Jesus. As the person participates in a relationship with Jesus through faith and practicing the works of piety and works of mercy, grace transforms the affections and tempers.

Participation in the church that promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness and does all in its power to increase faith, confirm hope, and perfect you in love equips you to cooperate with the Holy Spirit through formation of new habits (works of piety and mercy). These new habits enable the Holy Spirit to form new ways of thinking and behaving. Wesley called these “holy tempers:” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Life in the church that encourages and supports growth in holiness of heart and life through practicing works of piety and works of mercy leads to persons who have “the mind of Christ” and who “walk as he walked” (Philippians 2:5 & 1 John 2:6).


Love is the power of God. Jesus Christ is the incarnation of God’s love for the world. To learn what love is and looks like, look to Jesus Christ crucified and risen. The most complete description of this love is provided by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.[3]

Love brings forth life, righteousness, and justice. Love overcomes the powers of sin and death that naturally reign in the human heart. When Christians cooperate with grace and participate in the redeeming and healing work of the Holy Spirit they are set free from sin’s power to diminish and destroy life. Grace, which is God’s love at work in your heart and in the world, sets you free to become the person God created you to be, in the image of Christ.

Love ruling upon the believer’s heart is the goal of the Christian life, which is directed toward God and his mission in the world. The Wesleyan way of making disciples of Jesus Christ is directed toward teaching and equipping people to pursue holiness of heart and life; which is another way of saying love ruling the heart and governing the life of the Christian. The whole of the Christian life is pursuit of this love of God and loving those whom God loves. Love is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.


Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3-6).

This passage echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:24-27. The writer makes the connection between obedience to Jesus and the holiness that follows. Following and obeying Jesus will change the hearts and lives of the people who receive the waters of baptism and take up the Christian life. Wesley famously wrote there are no solitary Christians. By this he means that following Jesus in the world necessarily requires participation in a community devoted to him, in the company of others who know him and who are pursuing “the mind of Christ” so they may “walk just as he walked.”

The Christian life of discipleship is a relational endeavor. This is why baptism has marked the beginning of the Christian life since the days of the first apostles. Baptism initiates you into the church that promises to surround you with a community of love and forgiveness so that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others. The church promises to pray for you, that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[4]

Christians need relationships with women and men who have walked with Jesus in the world. They serve as leaders in discipleship whose lives witness to Jesus Christ in the world. They teach others the disciplines of loving God and loving those whom God loves as they practice the means of grace. They serve as coaches and mentors for new Christians to emulate as they begin their pursuit of holiness of heart and life.

Covenant Discipleship groups are one of the places in the church where leaders in discipleship, disciples who disciple others, are formed and supported. They are the means of grace God uses to raise up women and men who will serve with Christ in the work of disciple making. The leaders who emerge from the weekly process of mutual accountability and support for discipleship assure the congregation hears Jesus and acts on his words. They serve as the solid foundation of discipleship the congregation needs to carry out its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

[1] The United Methodist Hymnal: Book of United Methodist Worship, “Baptismal Covenant I,” page 35.

[2] John Wesley, Sermon 92: “On Zeal”, §II.5.

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

[4] The United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I”, page 35.