When Does One Become a Disciple?

The article below was taken from the September 1989 edition of THE GOSPEL ADVOCATE. I have had it setting in a box in my office for quite some time, intending, eventually to study it further and file it. I read again the article today and it is quite convincing. I have to acknowledge that I have not always understood this text the way it is explained below and have been somewhat uncomfortable with my own understanding of it. I believe that brother Woods’ explanation has helped me to see the light and I believe he has the matter correctly explained. It is a LENGTHY article (1829 words), but I feel confident that it will benefit you if you will invest the time to read it carefully.–DRL

By Guy N. Woods

QUESTION: Are the participles “baptizing” and “teaching” in the Great Commission as recorded by Matthew modal and hence descriptive of the manner in which disciples are made?

ANSWER: No. These wonderful words of the risen Lord as penned by his biographer, Matthew, are: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:19-20).

The view that the participles “baptizing” and “teaching” describe the manner in which the action of the principal verb (make disciples) is carried out, is by no means a new one, although it has appeared only in recent years in the churches of Christ. Pedo-baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and others—baby sprinklers all—long have advanced the view in their defense of infant baptism.

If one must be a disciple before being baptized, and a disciple is one previously taught—and infants cannot be taught—infants cannot properly be subjects of baptism. To avoid this obvious conclusion their advocates have contended that the participles are modal and thus descriptive of the manner in which disciples are made, by first baptizing babies and then when they are old enough making disciples out of them by teaching them.

Instances exist in the Greek New Testament where participles in grammatical concord with the principal verb are adjuncts, such as in Acts 22:16, but the central question here is whether the participles “baptizing” and “teaching” may properly be described as modal in Matthew 28:19,20.

The only prominent denominational theologian known to me who is not in the Pedo-baptist camp and has supported this view is A.T. Robertson. His reliability in any mater relating to the plan of salvation may be judged by weighing his comment that the question of whether baptism is for the remission of sins as taught in Acts 2:38 is a theological one—not a grammatical one.

Verses 19 and 20 contain two full clauses. The aorist imperative verb matheteusate states the action of the first independent clause: (going) “make disciples.” Three circumstantial participles are used: poreuthentes (going or having gone), baptidzontes (baptizing) and didaskontes (teaching). The first, poreuthentes, is a temporal aorist, signifying “when you go,” and the other two—baptidzontes and didaskontes—are present active participles indicating continuous distributive action, such as, when you have gone and made disciples, baptize and teach each disciple you have made.

The second clause, introduced by the relative osa, signifying “however many,” makes obligatory the impartation of those matters taught by the Lord while on earth to these baptized disciples. Thus, three distinct obligations are set forth in Matthew’s report of the commission: having gone, make disciples; baptize these disciples; and teach these baptized disciples “all things whatsoever” Jesus commanded.

First, the verb matheteusate (make disciples) is second person plural, aorist active imperative of matheteuo, and the noun form is mathetes, defined by every reliable lexicon known to me as a learner, pupil, and student. The verb is used transitively in the passage under study, and it is quite obvious that one becomes a learner by being taught. To deny, as the doctrine under review does, that one is a disciple only after having been baptized and taught (didaskontes) strikes from the verb its basic and primary meaning.

Second, having instructed the apostles to “make disciples,” Jesus then commanded that they baptize and teach them. This was logical and chronological—logical because only believers are subjects of baptism, and those only are believers who have been taught, i.e., disciple; chronological because the act designated in the participle “baptizing” cannot be performed until after the action of the principal verb. It then must be apparent that the participle “baptizing” is a temporal adjunct and that the actions of the verb (make disciples) and that of baptizing them are not concurrent, because the second of the acts (baptizing) is possible only after the first (discipling) has been done.

Third, those they were to baptize are identified as “them” (autous, accusative plural of the pronoun autos), whose antecedent is mathetes (a disciple) and inherent in the verb matheteusate (make disciples). But, if one does not become a disciple until after baptism, no disciple is present to baptize and thus the pronoun is without an antecedent.

Lest someone should think the antecedent of “them” is “nations,” it should be noted that autous is masculine gender, whereas “nations” (ta ethne) is neuter gender, and thus lacking concord, cannot be the antecedent of the pronoun. Moreover, “nations” contain not only infants but wicked and corrupt characters who quite obviously are not currently candidates for baptism.

Fourth, we should keep in mind that two present particles follow the principal verb in Matthew 28:19-20, both of which are alleged to be modal and descriptive of the manner in which the action of the verb is done. Therefore, a disciple is not made until after the action involved in both baptizing and teaching has been done!

Baptism is performed by immersion and is relatively quickly done. However, the obligation to “teach them to observe (literally, to keep) all things whatsoever I commanded you”—that which our Lord taught throughout His public ministry—must indeed require considerable time and effort, all of which, according to the position under review, logically must occur before one becomes a disciple.

On this assumption, although baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), puts one “into Christ” (Romans 6:3), and is the consummating act in the plan of salvation (1 Peter 3:21), one who submits—although forgiven—to the church and is saved and a Christian, is not yet a disciple of his Lord and will not be until he has been instructed in “all things whatsoever” the Lord taught. It scarcely needs to be noted that Peter, on Pentecost and at Caesarea, provided for no such interval before authorizing those whom he already had taught to be baptized in order to become disciples (Acts 2:42).

It seems a begging of the question to insist that “teaching them to observe all things” does not necessarily mean everything Jesus taught. If not, how much does it include? And who is to decide the inclusions and the exclusions? This objection bears refutation on its own face.

Fifth, in the apostle John’s biographical account of the life and ministry of our Lord, it is said that he “made and baptized more disciples than John [the Baptist].” The interesting comment follows that “Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples” (John 4:1-2). This means Jesus did not with His own hands baptize, but His disciples, with His authorization, did—and on the basis of the maxim that a principal acts through his agents, the action substantially was that of the Lord.

The order is significant. Jesus, John the Baptist, and the apostles all were engaged in the making of disciples. First, they made disciples. Second, they baptized the disciples they previously had made. Carefully note that the verse does not say they made disciples by baptizing them. They made disciples by teaching them, and these, being prepared, then were baptized. For many months the apostles, under the direct supervision of the Lord, had been engaged in making disciples and baptizing them.

Are we to suppose that, without any explanation whatsoever, these same apostles would understand Him to be telling them in the Great Commission that henceforth they were to reverse the order of making disciples by teaching them and start making disciples by baptizing them?

Sixth, the parallels between the reports of the commission by Matthew and Mark point irresistibly to the conclusion that disciples are made by teaching, they then were to be baptized, and they were “taught all things whatsoever” that Jesus commanded.

Mark’s mention of preaching equates with Matthew’s discipling. Those believing the preaching (Mark) correspond to those who having learned of the Lord, which to complete their obedience (Matthew). Mark’s note of baptism as a condition of salvation has its counterpart in Matthew’s statement of baptism into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Mark’s record of the commission thus became an inspired commentary on that by Matthew.

Several years after the Great Commission began to be preached, because “disciples” usually became “Christians,” the term, by metonymy, began to be used as a synonym for Christians (Acts 11:26), just as Christians eventually were called Jews (Romans 2:28-29), the seed of Abraham (4:11, 13, 16), Israelites (9:6), and the circumcision (Philippians 3:3). But this is unrelated to the study before us, and has nothing to do with how disciples are made. This is quite clear from the fact that Paul found certain disciples at Ephesus whom the Holy Spirit so designated before they were baptized “in the name of the Lord” (Acts 19:1).

Finally, the unanimity prevailing on this subject is overwhelming. These quotations—to which dozens of other similar statements easily might be added—are representative:

  • Two things or two classes of duties were enjoined on the Apostles in this commission. The first was the work of discipleing (sic) or making disciples. The second was the education of those disciples collected into churches or schools. –Alexander Campbell
  • His order to them was simply this: go and make disciples of all the nations; baptize the converts, and then teach them to walk in all the laws and ordinances of the New Covenant. –Robert Milligan
  • Having made disciples by persuading men to accept the teaching of Jesus, and having baptized such into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they were next to teach them all that Jesus had commanded—all the duties of the Christian life. –J.W. McGarvey

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, and when by teaching you make disciples baptize them, i.e., the disciples. –Moses E. Lard