Book Review: Disciple by Bill Clem

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How do we make disciples? This is the question that so many are asking these days. Do we do it by creating new programs and courses? Do we do it informally, getting together and “doing life” one-on-one?

While there are many different approaches, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, Pastor Bill Clem suggests the key to making disciples isn’t so much figuring out a program that works, but understanding a disciple’s identity in Jesus in the first place. In his recent book, Disciple: Getting Your Identity from Jesus, Clem unpacks what it means to get our identity from Jesus through the storyline of redemption. The result is a book that offers a more robust view of discipleship than, perhaps, we’ve become accustomed to.

There is much to be commended in Disciple. Most fundamentally, this is a book about Jesus. He is the starting point, the hero of Scripture and the example of what true discipleship looks like. This is an approach I’ve not really seen before, but it works exceptionally well. Jesus, in his 33 years on earth, was the epitome of what it meant to be a worshipper of God—indeed, He was the only one who ever wholeheartedly did so. He perfectly expressed a heart of worshipful obedience to the Father. He perfectly lived in community with His disciples. And He perfectly walked with intentionality—He was single-minded about His mission to seek and save the lost, and redeem a people unto Himself.

This is something that’s easy for us to overlook, even when we are reminded again and again from others that Jesus’ life is to be an example to those who follow after Him. Fortunately, Clem doesn’t just say, “Hey look at Jesus and do what he does; then you’ll be a disciple.” Such exhortations, no matter how well intended, rarely lead to godly living.

Instead, Clem reminds us that our ability to be disciples flows from our identity and our original purpose—that of God’s imagebearers. We were created to image God within creation, and though sin marred our ability to do so, the redemptive work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, renews and restores that purpose and desire. Fundamentally, that is what it means to be a disciple. Anything else is idolatry. Clem writes:

Gospel identity for us lies in having a renewed image as imagers of God. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, God allows himself to be seen by us and through us. He graces us with letting us be part of his story. To try and hijack the story from God or take the lead role away from Jesus is to act less like a human and more like the things of which men make idols. (p. 72)

Despite there being a great deal of excellent material in the book, I wasn’t altogether wowed by Disciple. It’s not that it’s not good—as I said, I love the approach, and there is much to be commended.

And yet.

If I had to sum it up simply, it’s an increasingly prominent underlying assumption I’ve seen in numerous other Christian books, particularly those connected to early adopters of the term “missional.” That is, if we live in community like the early church, if we’re reaching out as best we can on mission in our communities, then the people of our communities will be drawn in and more open to the gospel. It’s essentially a reading of Acts 2:42-47 that views it as entirely prescriptive, rather than descriptive. This is best exemplified when Clem writes, “Our compelling missional thought should be to so embed ourselves in what is right about our culture that people would weep if we as the people of God were removed from it” (p. 167).

While I love the heart behind such thinking, and while it’s certainly true that believers will be know by their love for one another (cf. John 13:35), we also have to recognize that with discipleship comes persecution. “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master,’” Jesus tells us. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20). While we should seek the wellbeing of those around us, we need to be careful to have a certain realism with regard to how our surrounding communities would view us if we were gone. Those whose hearts are opposed to Jesus will always be opposed to those who follow Him—and although they might, at best, miss some of the things we do, they’re always going to be more likely to rejoice than weep if we were gone.

Where Disciple is strong, though, it’s very strong because, fundamentally, it’s not a book about making disciples, although there’s much in it that can be applied to that purpose. Instead, it is about the qualities and character of a disciple. As we understand who we are in Jesus, we will be better equipped to image God to those around us. Disciple goes a long way in helping readers do this and I believe that many readers will benefit greatly by much of its content.


TItle: Disciple: Getting Your Identity from Jesus
Author: Bill Clem
Publisher: Crossway/Re:Lit (2011)

A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.

  • Dan

    Aaron,

    I have to agree with you on two accounts.

    I found the viewpoint that Clem writes from is a nice departure from all the discipleship books that focus primarily on a disciple as learner and how to practically produce more learners. It is helpful to consider a disciple from his identity in Christ. I heartily enjoyed that aspect of this book.

    But also the sentiment that I find in the statement about communities weeping if a church wasn’t there to be misguided. I have heard many pastors that I highly respect use this term and I think the desire to reach people has blinded them to the reality that Christians are the foolish and despised as 1 Corinthians 1 shows us. Yes elders and also all Christians should be thought well of by outsiders (1 Tim. 3) but this doesn’t mean we will always be loved by our communities. They might love the mercy we show and the service we do, but when we start talking about their separation from God due to their sin, we are no longer so welcome in their affections! As always a balanced approach would be much more biblical.

  • Ben Thorp

    Thanks for a good review :)

    I too am worried by the increasing trend to idolise the “early church”. Not only does it completely devalue the lessons of church history, I think it is using very rose-tinted glasses as it looks at the early church. Let’s face it – if the early church was so good, then the Pauline epistles would have taken a much different tone!