Life on Life Partner Development, Trainer and Coach
When you consider the key ingredients to an effective discipleship group, what comes to your mind? Many of us will say things like great discipleship curriculum, well-trained leaders, or time spent focused on things like Bible study and accountability.
All of those are great ingredients and important, but we are sometimes tempted to forget the most important one: the active work of the Holy Spirit.
In this article, we will explain the role of the Holy Spirit in discipleship and share some specific stories and examples of the Spirit using us to disciple others. But first, let’s remind ourselves of the goal of discipleship and the privilege we have in the process.
The Goal of Discipleship
If you disciple others, what is the deepest longing for those you disciple?
Different people will answer this question in different ways, but the biblical answer is simple: the goal of discipleship is to see those we disciple be transformed into the image of Christ.
The apostle Paul states this longing clearly in Galatians 4:19, “…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”
This was also Paul’s longing for himself – he also wanted to be transformed. He explains this Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This is not simply the longing of Paul’s heart. It is the longing and goal of God for His people, Romans 8:29-30 says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
The Privilege in the Process of Discipleship
God has promised transformation in the lives of his people (Phil. 1:6), and He has called us to be a part of this work. It is humbling then, when the Lord uses us to help transform His people.
Paul explains this privilege in 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 as he attributes work in different stages of God’s discipleship process to himself and Apollos:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants, and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”
God can use us in ways we do not expect, but anytime we get to participate in God’s work of transformation and discipleship it is a privilege.
The Discipleship Both/And
In discipleship relationships, should you rely on your skills, training, and curriculum? Or should you rely on the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of His people.
This question does not have an either/or answer, but rather it is both/and.
If we only rely on our own skills, and not enough on God’s Word and the Holy Spirit to transform those we disciple, then we’re missing the primary agent of change. At the same time, if we expect God’s Spirit to do everything, then we miss out on helping do his incredible work.
As the 1 Corinthians 3 passage from earlier teaches us, God does the work and involves His people. The Lord assigned Paul to plant. The Lord assigned Apollos to water. The Lord Himself caused the growth.
Discipleship is both the work of God’s Word and the Holy Spirit AND our engagement of the people we seek to disciple.
A Both/And Pursuit – The Role of the Holy Spirit in Discipleship
God is always working. The Holy Spirit is always working. ALWAYS.
God created the world and it was very good, but then came the fall of man into sin. God has been working ever since…a recreation of all things, especially recreating and transforming His people into the likeness of Jesus.
Romans 8:28, 31-32 is familiar and reminds us of this sovereign work of the Lord FOR his people. “And we know that for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose… 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
In his book, The Master Plan of Evangelism, Dr. Robert E. Coleman writes, “…it is the Spirit who sustains and nourishes the transformed life of a disciple in knowledge and grace (John 4:14; 7:38-39).”
Paul David Trip expresses the same truth in How People Change, “The Holy Spirit enables us to see Jesus and all that we have and are in Him…and helps us to live Cross-centered lives… connecting us to Jesus and all he has done for us.”
The Holy Spirit is working in every millisecond of every day, in every circumstance and in and through every believer for the glory of Christ (John 16:14a) and for our good. The implication of this stunning truth for discipleship is as profound as it is paramount. When we are in a discipleship relationship, the Holy Spirit has a plan. The Holy Spirit has an agenda. The Holy Spirit has a good, perfect and “for us” outcome that HE desires.
There is a time and place for biblical advice, teaching, input and counsel. There is a time and place for thinking biblically for those we disciple. There is a time and place for naming idols of the heart in others and giving biblical next steps. The Bible calls us to do these things.
Unfortunately, we start a discipleship conversation with OUR biblical directives far too often.
In his book, Disciples are Made, Not Born, Walter A. Henrichsen says, “In the training process, it must be remembered that the trainer cannot take upon himself the work of the Holy Spirit. He cannot reach down inside a man and change his sense of values—though often he wishes he could when he meets people who appear to be giving their lives to the wrong things, and whose sense of values seems to be warped.”
Here at Life on Life, we often say, “The Holy Spirit is a better discipler than we are.” It is a freeing thought!
If the Holy Spirit is always working intentionally for our good and Christ’s glory, what are some ways that we can align our hearts with what the Holy Spirit desires to do in those we disciple to the end that Christ is formed in them?
8 Ways to Align Our Work with the work of the Holy Spirit
Pray to the Holy Spirit that He would align our minds with His, as Johannes Kepler said, “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” Pray that He would align our love with His love for the disciple. Pray that He would align our work in the disciple’s life with the work He desires to do. (Eph. 1:16-19; Phil. 1:9-7; Col. 1:9-12)
Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” When we take courage in the fact that the Holy Spirit is working, we can listen well and increase our influence, credibility, and understanding. We can impact others deeply by making them feel important, appreciated and loved.
An older brother in Christ told me once, “To listen to someone is to love them.” When we listen and love well, the fruit of that labor will be increased morale, better ideas, and higher levels of ownership and responsibility in those we disciple. James 1:19 says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak…”
Here are some things to consider about listening.
- Listen to their words: We all know when someone isn’t listening. We also know when they do. Focus your attention and seek to avoid distractions.
- Listen with our body: Face the person and have an open posture. Maintain eye contact and nod with understanding. Don’t keep checking your phone while you listen.
- Listen with our words (or lack of words): Ask relevant questions and reflect important words back to them. Summarize what they say so they can hear themselves.
- Listen to what is behind their words: Our words are always pointing to something deeper in our hearts. Listen for things they may long for in their words, such as freedom, joy, peace, delight, fulfillment, healing, courage, security, love, forgiveness, acceptance, determination, intimacy, awe and purpose.
- Listen to the Holy Spirit – Remember, you are praying throughout a conversation. “Holy Spirit, align me with the work you are doing.” Listen to His promptings and submit to His work, even if what He desires is far different from where we think the conversation should go.
3. Ask Questions
Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” In many societies the act of leading is equated with telling, being directive, and having the answers. “Telling” is only one way to lead, with a number of disadvantages. When someone knows the truth of God’s Word in a particular area of following Christ, what is often needed is asking powerful and penetrating questions and drawing out the Holy Spirit longings in a person’s heart.
- Others-centered questions – Powerful, open, and non-leading questions benefit the person we are discipling, not us as the discipler. If we view ourselves as the solution-provider, then we will want to gather information so we can provide the solution. But if we believe that the Holy Spirit is working in others as born-again, images of God, with ability and responsibility, we can ask questions that empower them toward making decisions in accordance with the Word.
- Backward focused – Understanding the past is necessary and helpful in discipleship, especially when discerning what patterns of lies people believe as a result of their story. Curious, gracious and understanding questions help those we disciple to navigate God’s providential presence and grace in their past.
- Forward focused – Eventually, we want to help move those we disciple forward into patterns of living according to the truth of God’s Word. It is here that we want to focus our questions on the Holy Spirit’s longings for their future.
Depending on where someone is in their knowledge of Christ and His Word, there will almost always be an opportunity to graciously, firmly, gently and lovingly speak the truth of God’s Word into their hearts as the Holy Spirit leads. We want to help them know how to live according to the authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of our God.
2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
5. Gospel them
Martin Luther said, “We need to hear the gospel every day because we forget it every day.” I am convinced that at the core of the struggle of every believer is gospel amnesia. We need to saturate those we disciple in the gospel, reminding them of the stunning grace of God in order to fuel them toward growth in righteousness.
Ephesians 2:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
A comedian once beautifully and hilariously talked about the “me monster.” The “me monster” is the person who is always trying to make the conversation about themselves and to one-up everyone else with their achievements and stories of adventure.
Without even knowing it (and sometimes we do), we can turn a conversation back to ourselves and make it all about us. We tell stories of our own that seem to relate to those we are talking with. When we respond, we need to focus on what the Holy Spirit was doing and how it impacted us.
Here is an example, “When you shared your desire to love your wife sacrificially, the Holy Spirit was stirring me toward loving my wife more deeply in the same way. Thank you.” It can be short and sweet, and it focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit in and through them!
Support your people in whatever next steps they plan to take. Ask them, “how can I best support and love you? What support do you need from others? Do you need any resources?”
You can show support by following up in the short and long term of their progress. Maybe the progress they aspired to hasn’t taken shape. Circle back around graciously. What were the obstacles that hindered the progress? It’s time for another Holy Spirit conversation.
As they make progress, celebrate them and the work of the Holy Spirit. It could be a phone call. It could be a coffee celebration! It could be an email or text. But don’t forget to celebrate!!
We’ll finish this article with a great example of the Holy Spirit working in discipleship and how it was celebrated.
The Role of the Holy Spirit in Discipleship – An Example
I once had the privilege of discipling a good friend (we’ll call him John). There was another man (we’ll call him Bob) who previously discipled John as well. Today, John is now discipling other men.
John’s story is riddled with pain. His father left when he was young. His mother was horrible and brought home horrible men. After years of agony, God rescued him.
Now as an adult, John, his wife and two boys travel during most summers to see their extended relatives, including John’s mother.
John texted me one day asking if I could talk and we got on the phone. He and his family were making their summer plans to visit family. He told me that his mother was recently diagnosed with cancer and was dying. He didn’t want to go see her, which was understandable given their history. I think he wanted permission from me to not see her, and I wanted to give it to him. But then I prayed and asked the Holy Spirit to have His way.
I listened to John and asked some questions about how he felt and then other questions around his answers. I believe the Holy Spirit prompted me to ask this question, “I want you to imagine that you did go see her. What would the ideal scenario look like? How would that visit go?” (Teach)
He said something like this, “I would take my two boys with me (both are teenagers). I would be able to engage my mother in grace, and my boys would see me honor my mother. I would share the gospel with her, and she would receive Christ.”
After affirming him and asking some other questions, he had resolved that he would go visit her with his boys. I responded, “John, your desire to honor your mother and lead your boys is beautiful and powerfully true to God’s Word. The Holy Spirit has given me a deeper resolve (respond) to lead my boys through His work in you. Thank you.” I prayed for him and told him I loved him.
A month or two later, after his trip, I texted John to see how everything went (support). He called me a little while later when I was driving. As he spoke, I could hear the excitement and astonishment in his voice. I pulled over. He went on to tell me that he visited his mother twice with his boys.
The first visit was short, cold and uneventful.
For his second visit, however, he prayed for the courage to engage his mother. During the visit he asked her, “How are you feeling?” She said she was feeling fine. He asked again but with more detail, “Mom, you are dying of cancer. Are you afraid?”
She responded, “At first, I was, but then, out of nowhere a man visited me. I’m not sure, but I think he was a pastor. He explained things about Jesus to me and prayed with me. Ever since that visit, I haven’t been afraid.” John told me that he then had the opportunity to share the full gospel with his mother. He didn’t know what this man had shared with his mother, so he wanted to make sure she heard the truth. She said, “Yeah, that’s what the man explained to me, and I believe it.”
After wiping the snot and tears off my face, I was finally able to speak. I said to John, “Your ideal happened!” He wasn’t sure what I meant. I said, “Remember our conversation? You said that you wanted to take your boys with you to see your mother. Check. You wanted to engage her in grace. Check. You wanted to share the gospel with her. Check. You wanted your boys to see you honor your mother. Check. You wanted her to receive Christ. Although it had already happened, check.”
I celebrated with him, told him how proud I was of him and reminded him of God’s delight in him. We talked a bit more about what it would be like for him to be reunited with his mother in heaven.
And so, Bob planted some discipleship seeds in John. I watered. Ultimately, God gave the growth and bore the fruit.
Discipleship is important work – it is the great commission Jesus gave us before he left! It is not something, however, that we are called to do alone. We cannot forget the role of the Holy Spirit in transforming the lives of God’s people, and we should always ask Him to help us, empower us, and guide us as we seek to make and train disciples.