The NIV text of Matthew 28:18-20 has led to certain conclusions about the meaning of the passage that are not in accordance with the Greek text. This will discuss the Greek text of Matthew 28:18-20 and the place of discipleship in conversion.
Let us consider the translation of this passage in the New International Version (NIV) and the New American Standard Version (NASB), along with the Greek text from the SBL Greek New Testament.
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 [g]Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to [h]follow all that I commanded you; and behold, I am with you [i]always, to the end of the age.”
18 καὶ προσελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῖς λέγων· Ἐδόθη μοι πᾶσα ἐξουσία ἐν οὐρανῷ καὶ ἐπὶ [p]τῆς γῆς· 19 πορευθέντες [q]οὖν μαθητεύσατε πάντα τὰ ἔθνη, [r]βαπτίζοντες αὐτοὺς εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ πατρὸς καὶ τοῦ υἱοῦ καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος, 20 διδάσκοντες αὐτοὺς τηρεῖν πάντα ὅσα ἐνετειλάμην ὑμῖν· καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ μεθ’ ὑμῶν εἰμι πάσας τὰς ἡμέρας ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ [s]αἰῶνος.
Observations about this passage and translation of v. 19:
This passage does not explicitly discuss pre-requisites for one to be baptized. Baptism and teaching to obey are expressed as the major aspects of the "discipling" of the nations.
A critical question is, "Do you have to be a 'disciple' to be baptized?" Before answering such a question, we need to define some terminology and concepts more precisely.
Anyone seeking to be baptized and to be taught to obey all that Jesus has commanded has been "discipled" (instructed) to seek these things. This is exactly what this text has in mind.
Some have suggested that certain passages "define what a disciple" is-- these might include Luke 14:25-33, John 13:34, John 15:8, and others. Working from this, some think that these passages mean one must "deny himself", "love one another," "bear fruit that will last" and the like prior to baptism.
However, such an understanding is at odds with examples of New Testament conversion seen in the book of Acts, the balance of the New Testament (where such concepts are never presented as prerequisites for baptism), and man's sinful nature as well. Further, taking such concepts from the Messianic ministry of Jesus and bringing them into church age conversion requires ripping them out of their contexts. This isn't to say love, fruit-bearing or other "marks" of a disciple aren't good things, but it is incorrect to suggest that some arbitrary level of performance in these areas is somehow a prerequisite for baptism based upon Matthew 28:19. Sinners come to Christ upon hearing the gospel possessing only their own need for salvation and their faith in Christ.
Similarly, some have taken the text from Luke 14:25 and taught that one must somehow "count the cost" before baptism. Again, this is taking the passage in Luke out of context-- Jesus was talking about people following him during his earthly ministy, not responding to the gospel in the church age. His point was that people expected an earthly kingdom and they needed to know that the cross and not the throne of Israel was in his immediate future. To the question at hand, there are no examples of anyone "counting the cost" prior to baptism in the church age. This isn't to say one shouldn't be sober minded about the implications of faith in Christ. But such concerns can obscure the gospel and make those implications greater than God and his working in our lives.
The intent of this article has been first to correctly understand v. 19, and then to consider its impact upon the entire conversion process.
Because of the limitations of the English language, translations of this passage can lead to misleading meanings. However, for the purposes of understanding this passage, a verb sense to the English "disciple" could be implemented. This would facilitate a more straightforward translation of the passage, "Disciple the nations."
The object of making disciples, baptizing and teaching to obey is "the nations." The individual members of "the nations" are the ones to be "discipled," baptized and taught to obey everything Jesus commanded.
Concerning the broader questions of conversion and discipleship, the teachings of other biblical passages have been briefly considered and harmonized with the text in question. Examining the entire conversion process is clearly a separate task that should be undertaken as a separate study.