We ought not to be ignorant of imitation. While we are not exactly in the image of God (lest we be God), we are in His image and are created to image Him forth to each other. The Bible is not ashamed to call us, then, to imitate God. While testifying to our sin and imperfection, the Holy Spirit nevertheless teaches us that (on account of the new birth) we can and must imitate Him. So,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph 5.1).
“But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1.15-16).
Somewhere someone once coined the phrase: “do as I say, not as I do,” and while we do not ascribe to such a frivolous idea, one wonders if we practice it. We tell our children how they ought not to throw fits, and when they throw a fit, we throw a fit at them. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The illustration of children is intentional simply because children, made in the image of God, are born to imitate. They say what we say, how we say it. They pick up our facial expressions and use them in timely ways. And they often do as we do, for good and for ill. The only disconnect is between what we say and what they do, but that is another post for another time.
The illustration of children is intentional, also, because it is the context in which both Paul and Peter and, most importantly, Jesus connects our imitation of God, our Father. Again, Paul writes, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Peter writes, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct” (1 Pet 1.14-15).
And they get this from Jesus who told those who had falsely believed in Him, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. You are doing what your father did.” They replied, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father — even God.” And Jesus responds, “If God were your Father, you would love me (presumably because God the Father loves God the Son), for I came from God and I am here. . . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell you the truth, why do you not believe me?
And then this: Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (Jn 8.39-47).
What has Jesus said? Every human being is born having not one but two fathers, a human father and the devil (for all are children of wrath by nature, like the rest of mankind, Eph 2.3). And even as we imitate our human parents, so we imitate the devil. His will is our will. His desires are our desires. What he does, we do, because we bear his nature, and this ultimately constitutes a rejection of God and Jesus Christ Whom He sent into the world to reveal Himself to sinners. What we need is to be, as Jesus says, “of God.” What does this entail?
All of this talk about children introduces the biblical doctrine of regeneration or the new birth. If we are to imitate God, we must be born of God. His nature must become ours. Our will and desires must be created anew. And this work of God was purchased by the death of Christ on the cross. All the promises of God, the New Covenant DNA, was bought by Christ. That includes the new birth, and with it hearts, wills, desires tattooed with that which is pleasing to our Father. Not only have we received a new nature that loves our Father and what He loves, but Christ’s work on the cross removed all the legal requirements hindering our adoption by God. We are by nature and by a just adoption, the children of God. Christ is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Heb 2.11).
Now as Christ is the perfect Son of God, so He perfectly imitated and therefore revealed the Father in all He did and didn’t, said and didn’t say, thought and didn’t think, etc. And as He is our older brother (Rom 8.29) and a perfect revelation of our Father, so as we behold Him and imitate Him, we see and imitate our Father.
And Paul teaches us that, by grace, this is quite possible. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11.1). He says two things: it is possible to imitate Christ, for Paul, a man like us, did it; and insofar as we observe Christ in our brothers and sisters, they too are — wildly — worthy of imitation! And this is not restricted to the apostle. For he writes to the Philippian church, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (4.17).
So let’s summarize: God has made us imitating creatures. Sin, however, brought the will, etc. under the bondage of sin and the father of all unbelieving people, namely, the devil. Therefore, we imitate him. We do as he does. But God determined to have children and to redeem them for Himself by sending His Son into the world in order to save us. A crucial aspect of our salvation is the new birth; another aspect adoption, and the end result is that believers are born of God and are the children of God. We have new hearts, wills, desires, tastebuds, etc., and love what our Father loves. Jesus is both the revelation of our Father to us and, as our older brother, as we behold Him we see that which is most worthy of imitation. It is possible to imitate Christ, as was the case with Paul, and Paul believed that others besides himself did the same and were, thus, exemplary believers whom we are to imitate also.
But if the truth be told, not many desire to be exemplary and worth imitating. Not many strive to imitate Christ. Why not? Call it laziness, carelessness, personal pessimism, hypocrisy, even perhaps a fraudulent faith, we simply don’t want to be exemplary in holiness because the cost appears to be too high and the reward, if it is on the radar, seems to be too small. Moreover, we have failed to understand our station as God’s children and the nature of the new birth, and how these realities show themselves in a mature and splendid and exemplary holiness.
How do we right the ship?
1. If we have been reckless children, we run to our Father, in light of our Brother’s sacrifice, and repent of being exemplary in hypocrisy. By His grace, we will no longer practice “do as I say, but not as I do.” We will strive to match our words and our actions.
2. Doctrinally, we must allow the reality of the new birth to have its full course in our thinking. We will no longer excuse ourselves from the Bible’s call to exemplary holiness and to the imitation of Christ by thinking heretically about Christ — that He was not a man like us therefore we cannot walk as He walked –, nor by thinking that the Holy Spirit simply can’t be serious in this cause because, doesn’t He know, we are only human. Yes, we are human, but we are not humans enslaved to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. We are new creatures. We ought to walk in newness of life.
3. We must count the cost of holiness and the infinitely greater cost of unholiness. Imitating Christ in holiness will lead to imitating Christ in suffering (2 Tim 3.12). A daily cross and the call to holiness are a packaged deal. The cost is great. But the cost of unholiness is far greater. To be without it will be to miss out on seeing God (Heb 12.14). No unholy thing will exist in heaven.
4. We must count the cost of holiness and the infinitely greater reward of holiness. If a man would follow or imitate Christ, he must forfeit his life. But such a forfeiture is of that base sort, a life lived for self and that life, even if it gains the whole world and a thousand years of happiness, is ultimately the damned life. But a life lived in imitation of Christ, a life laid down for Christ and the gospel, gains not the whole world but the eternal world of love, not a thousand years of happiness but an eternity of ever-increasing joy in the presence of God.
5. We must simply grow up, brothers and sisters. A “brother” of ours in Massachusetts has told us more than once as we plan to plant in Boston, “You have got to grow up! You have got to mature!” And he means in being like Christ in universal holiness. The problem for many is that we love being children. But we have not been saved to remain children but “to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4.16). God has saved us to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8.29). This is the good that God is working in every situation. Every circumstance, trial, temptation, moment granted is an opportunity to grow up, to imitate Christ, to become like Him more and more.
6. We must stop settling for sin and pursue joy in God. Holiness did not always produce a smile in the life of Christ. Holiness necessitates war against sin and war does not produce many smiles. The thought and reality of the end of war does. For too long and sometimes still, my obedience was/is stale. It lacked true joy. There was no happiness in holiness. There was no pleasure in holiness. And this makes sin all the more enticing. It is because we do not know the blessedness of holiness, to imitate God, to walk as Christ, to live by the Spirit, to commune with the Triune God, to evince our new nature, to manifest our new position, to magnify divine grace, to know His care, His joy, His delight, to testify to the whole gospel, to come to share in God’s holiness, to inherit the promise of seeing God and Christ face to face, etc. Joy in holiness (communion with God, cf. 1 Jn 1.5-8) keeps us from settling for sin.
7. We must not fear being exemplary in holiness. Many will turn up their noses, thinking you uptight, too heavenly minded, not fun enough. Others will make fun, setting up fake twitter accounts in your name (all in good fun of course), and joke about how you are too holy for their presence and the like. Still others will want to fight you, tempt you, and even kill you because of the Christ they see in you. Do not fear. Paul welcomed it all. “Imitate me,” he said, “even as I imitate Christ.” Are we of that stock? Yes, of course. Paul’s new birth carried no more power in it than yours or mine. Will we look our brothers and sisters, our husbands and wives, our children and all others in the face and say, “Imitate me, even as I imitate Christ”, and then strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord?
Will we say not only “Do as I say,” but also, “Do as I do?” Will we pursue an imitation of Christ worthy of imitation?
If we will, we will edify the church. We will point the Bride to Christ. We will shine like lights in the midst of a twisted and crooked generation. We will show forth our God and Father. We will testify to the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit. We will experience joy, for the absence of sin is the presence of joy in God. And perhaps our children won’t throw fits anymore either . . . perhaps?!
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