We revisit the role of discreteness and chaos in the dynamics of self-gravitating systems by means of $N$-body simulations with active and frozen potentials, starting from spherically symmetric stationary states and considering the orbits of single particles in a frozen $N$-body potential as well as the orbits of the system in the full $6N$-dimensional phase space. We also consider the intermediate case where a test particle moves in the field generated by $N$ non-interacting particles, which in turn move in a static smooth potential. We investigate the dependence on $N$ and on the softening length of the largest Lyapunov exponent both of single particle orbits and of the full $N$-body system. For single orbits we also study the dependence on the angular momentum and on the energy. Our results confirm the expectation that orbital properties of single orbits in finite-$N$ systems approach those of orbits in smooth potentials in the continuum limit $N \to \infty$ and that the largest Lyapunov exponent of the full $N$-body system does decrease with $N$, for sufficiently large systems with finite softening length. However, single orbits in frozen models and active self-consistent models have different largest Lyapunov exponents and the $N$-dependence of the values in non-trivial, so that the use of frozen $N$-body potentials to gain information on large-$N$ systems or on the continuum limit may be misleading in certain cases.