How and Why Do Christians Imitate Christ?
There is no question among orthodox Christians, i.e., those who believe and obey God’s Word, who believe the catholic creeds, who have a substantial connection to the ancient church, whether Christians ought to seek to imitate Christ. The questions we need to ask are: How do we imitate Christ and to what end do we imitate him?
There are analogies between our faith and Christ’s, but we should be very cautious about talking about Jesus’ faith and ours as if they are the same thing.
They are not the same thing because Jesus was not a sinner who needed to be saved from the wrath of God and we are not the Savior. Yes, Jesus may be said to have exercised faith. He trusted his heavenly Father, but the trust he exercised was not that trust that we, by grace alone (salvation and faith are a gift), exercise.
Jesus’ trust in his heavenly Father cannot be said to have been a gift. He was not born in need of regeneration (i.e., he was not born dead in sins and trespasses). He was not in need of being raised spiritually from death to life. As we’ve seen here and here on the Heidelberg Catechism, God the Son was born innocent, righteous, and holy not for himself but for us (pro nobis). All his righteousness (HC 60) is credited to believers so that it is as if they themselves had done all that he did. In Christ, sola gratia, sola fide, it is as if we had never sinned or had any sin. Jesus trusted that his Father would keep the covenant (pactum salutis) they made before all worlds (John 17), and that his Father would vindicate him (i.e., that he would recognize his Son’s inherent and perfect righteousness).
When we talk about our faith, we’re talking about the faith of fallen, sinful, mere humans.
We are not inherently, intrinsically righteous before God. We are righteous only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. That is why Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness,” is applied repeatedly in the New Testament to believers, to Christians, and not to the Christ. Yes, when we believe, we are certainly trusting that our Father will keep his promises to us, but those promises are made to us in Christ and we are praying in Jesus’ name. When Jesus prayed, he didn’t need a Mediator. Jesus is the Christ and we are his Christians. These are two distinct classes.
There are two dangers in talking about the imitation of Christ: 1) moralism; and 2) moralism. Let me explain. It has been claimed that “Christian” (Χριστιανός) means “little Christ.” That’s not quite correct. It means “a follower of Christ.” The word occurs only three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) and it never means “little Christ.” That some think this way, however, illustrates the first danger—that of confusing the Christ and the Christian.
Doing so tends toward self-salvation, which is an impossibility, and is either born of a denial of the fall and its consequences (Pelagianism) or from downplaying the effects of the fall (semi-Pelagianism, Romanism, Arminianism). In the case of Pelagius, he set up two great examples for all humans to follow: Adam and Christ. He denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all.” He said that we’re all born Adam and that we may, if we will, do what Adam failed to do: obey God of our own will unto glory.
The apostle Paul, however, took a very different view (see Romans chapters 1–5; Eph. 2:1–4). According to Paul, when Adam sinned, we all sinned in him and when he died spiritually, so did we. By nature, after the fall, we are incapable of doing anything toward salvation. We are utterly helpless. To blur the line between Jesus and his people then creates the impression that if we only pull a little harder on our bootstraps, we can imitate Jesus unto acceptance with God and glory. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The second danger is closely related to the first, that of turning Jesus into the first Christian.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) did this by attempting to redefine Christianity as the recovery of Jesus’ religious experience. Some liberals who followed him, as J. Gresham Machen noted, blurred the line between Christ and the Christian by making Jesus into the first Christian do-gooder. That he was not. He did good, but not toward an earthly utopia, not merely as a prophet, but as the Savior of sinners and by way of inaugurating the kingdom of God. The kingdom, however, in the interregnum, is largely invisible especially to those who seek a kingdom of power and glory before the consummation. Jesus disappointed Judas, and he continues to disappoint those who continue to cry for Bar-Abbas.
Both of these dangers are quite present today. On the one hand, there is a reaction to antinomianism both real and perceived that tends to blur the line between Christ and Christian by talking incautiously about Jesus’ faith and ours, without explaining clearly the qualitative difference, as if Jesus had faith in just the same sense as we. That is a great mistake. We also face pressure to blur the line from those who, in various ways, want to see Christianity expressed more visibly in the world in concrete ways. A century later, we’re having the same discussions about the Social Gospel that we had in the early twentieth century. It’s frequently said now that our Christianity may just as well be seen as heard. In two words: uh, no.
We need to make some distinctions:
There is Imitation of Christ: Faith hath two eyes; one lookes to Christs merits that we may be saved; the other to his righteousness that we may be sanctified. In Imitation there be two things, Action and Affection. Action, for it is not enough to commend and admire the patterne, but we must follow it. Affection, for it is not enough to forgive because we cannot revenge. This is no sufficient imitation of Christs love; for he can, if he please, bruise sinners to pieces, and break them.
Thomas Adams made a great point. We look first to Christ’s merits for us and then only should we talk about imitation—but talk about it we must.
There is a very necessary distinction in the way we talk about the imitation of Christ.
It is undeniably true that Christians seek to imitate Christ but, as Adams wrote, we look to Christ with two eyes, as it were. First, we look to him as Savior. If we fail to do this, we run the risk of falling into the Socinian error, as Samuel Rutherford noted in 1655:
The Socinian faith which looks to an exemplary Martyr whom God of no justice, but in vain, and for no cause delivered to death but of mere free pleasure whereas there might be, and is forgiveness without shedding of blood: contrair to Heb. 9. 22. Rom. 3. 24, 25 &c. even good works done in imitation of Christ.
There are other ways to abuse the truth that Christians imitate Christ. The early English Presbyterian Thomas Cartwright warned about one of them:
RHEM. 7. [17. Tha character or the name.] As belike for the perverse imitation of Christ, whose image (specially as on the Rhood or crucifixe) he seeth honored and exalted in every Church, he will have his image adored (for that is Antichrist, in emulation of like honour, adversary to Christ) so for that he seeth all true Christian men to beare the badge of his Cross in their forehead, he likewise will force all his to have an other marke, to abolish the signe of Christ.
The abuse here is to violate God’s law and justify by calling it “imitation.” These “imitations” are, of course, improper. We may not do as we will and call it the “imitation of Christ.” He alone determines how he is to be worshiped and adored. The sorts of things of which Cartwright complained grew out of the medieval attempt to replicate the life of Christ, quests that failed to honor the distinction between the Savior and the saved, between the Christ and his Christians.
Jesus is more than an example, but he is, in certain important ways, an example to us to imitate.
Here we come to the other eye, of which Adams wrote. William Perkins points us in the right direction as we seek to understand how it is that we imitate Christ. We do so not as “little christs,” not in order to be accepted by God, but because he is the Christ and because we have been accepted. As such, by his free favor alone, through faith alone, by the Spirit we are united to him. We imitate him thus:
First, as Christ Jesus when he was dead rose againe from death to life by his own power, so we by his grace, in imitation of Christ, must endeavour our selves to rise up from all our sins both originall and actual unto newnes of life. This is worthily set downe by the Apostle, saying, We are buried by baptisme into his death, that as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glorie of the Father, so we also should walke in new nesse of life: and therefore we must endeavour our selves to show the same power to be in us every day, by rising up from our owne personall sins to a reformed life. This ought to be remembred of us, because howsoever many heare and know this point, yet very few do practise the same.
We seek to die to sin and live to Christ. This is the basic structure of the Christian life. Perkins made clear the distinction between Christ and the Christian. He rose again “by his own power.” We endeavor to “rise up” metaphorically from our sins. We are identified with Christ in baptism, to the end that we might walk in the new life, in Christ. We imitate the Savior by seeking to live as saved people.
Herman Witsius is also helpful here:
LXXXIX. But yet, as it is very desirable to have likewise an example of perfect holiness upon earth; so God has not suffered us to be without one; for he sent his own Son from heaven, who hath left us the brightest pattern of every virtue, without exception, “that we should follow his steps,” 1 Pet. 2:21. It was a part of Christ’s prophetical office, to teach not only by words, but by the example of his life, that both in his words and actions, he might say, “learn of me,” Matt. 11:29. The imitation of him is often recommended by the apostles, 1 Cor. 11:1. 1 Thess. 1:6. 1 John 2:6.
Christians are to think of themselves as Christ’s servants who attend to his Word.
We are not accepted by God because of virtues formed in us by grace and cooperation with grace. That was the medieval theology and piety that the Reformers and Reformed Churches rightly rejected, but we did not reject the notion that God does form virtues in us. Christ did set an example for us. As Witsius noted, that’s the clear teaching of Scripture.
Still there are distinctions to be made in the way that talk about imitating Christ:
XC. It has been very well observed by a learned person, that we are to distinguish between imitation, whereby we are said to be μιμηται, imitators of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:1; and between following, by which we are commanded to follow Christ; between “follow me,” Matt. 16:24, and “follow after me,” Matt. 10:38. For the former denotes a conformity to an example: the latter, the attendance of servants going after their masters; which words are generally confounded by writers in their own language, though they ought by no means to be so.
The death we are to die is real but figurative. When Christ called us to take up his cross, he was not calling us (as they do in the Philippines each spring) literally to be nailed to a cross. That’s why we don’t take pilgrimages to Jerusalem to re-trace the steps of Christ. That borders on superstition. We are to walk in his footsteps as he obeyed his Father and as he loved his neighbor. The death we are to die daily is to sin.
The norm for our Christian life is not, as noted above, what we imagine we should do in order to imitate Christ. Rather, we are to think of ourselves as his servants who attend to his Word. We obey him according to his command, and we imitate him in the way that he instructed. As we seek to imitate him it is ever with the consciousness that it is he who has saved us and not we ourselves—not even in cooperation with grace. Our imitation is in recognition of the categorical distinction between Christ and Christian, Savior and saved.
R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).
This article is adapted from "The Necessity and Limits of the Imitation of Christ" at rscottclark.org.
1. Thomas Adams, A Commentary Or, Exposition Upon The Divine Second Epistle General Written By…St. Peter (1633), 14.
2. Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened, 285.
3. Thomas Cartwright, A Confutation Of The Rhemists Translation, Glosses And Annotations On The New Testament, 734.
4. William Perkins, An Exposition Of The Apostles’ Creed, 243–44.
5. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, trans. William Crookshank, vol. 2 (London: T. Tegg & Son, 1837), 44–45.
Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice by R. Scott Clark
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