Conformity to Jesus as the Paradigm for Christian Ethics (part 1)

Matthew Tuininga
 Part 1 The Imitation of Christ

One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer - "That I am not my own, but belong - body and soul, in life and in death - to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ" - to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian - that "I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing" - to its pastoral teaching regarding "what is basic to our prayer - the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father" - it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer's union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.
Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism's explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God's law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer's conformity to Christ - which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new - as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism's teaching regarding the substance of God's moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law's fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God's character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, "God with us," in flesh and blood. 
The catechism begins its discussion of Christian gratitude by asking why, given the reality of justification by grace alone through faith Christ, Christians should still do good. The answer is thoroughly Christocentric: "To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood. But we do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ" (Q&A 86). Note how the answer begins with the believer's conformity to Christ and ends with the believer's witness regarding Christ. Here, in a nutshell, is faithfully captured the New Testament's paradigm for the Christian life. The catechism goes on in the next question to describe that life as one of conversion to Christ through conformity to his death and resurrection: the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new (Q&A 88). 
I believe the catechism's framing of the Christian life through the lens of the believer's conformity to Christ reflects its commitment to the following thesis: The central paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics) in the New Testament is union with and conformity to Jesus Christ, in whom all of God's purposes for creation are fulfilled. In this and a few follow-up articles I would like to offer a biblical and theological defense of this thesis and to flesh out its concrete implications for Christians. I'd like to start by reflecting on what Scripture teaches concerning the obligation of Christians to imitate Christ. 
The Imitation of Christ 
In an essay he wrote on the beginning of his career on the Imitation of Christ, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck writes, "In its earliest period the newly formed Christian church simply lived as its Lord had." Only by means of such a distinct Christlike lifestyle, he points out, did the early Christians believe the church could be a "letter of Christ to the world."[1] Thus, "Denying itself and freely taking up its cross, the early church formed itself after the example left by its Lord." Unfortunately, Bavinck observes, "the purity of this imitation was soon lost," and Christians have been attempting to recover it ever since. 
The gospels, of course, are chock-full of Jesus' exhortations to his disciples to follow or imitate him in one way or another. Most famously, in Matthew 16:24 Jesus declares, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (see a slight variation in Luke 9:23). The same sentiment is presented in John's gospel as a prediction. "'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you" (John 15:20; Cf. John 13:16). Similar statements are pervasive. One who would be Jesus' disciple must "follow" him, walking in the path that he walked, in the way that he walked, and to the destination to which he walked. 
To follow Jesus is to think of the Christian life as a journey, or pilgrimage, but in John's gospel Jesus calls his disciples to imitate him in a more narrowly ethical sense. While the synoptic gospels record Jesus emphasizing the Law's stipulation that one must love his neighbor as himself, and whereas Matthew records Jesus' commandment that a Christian must love his enemy in imitation of his heavenly Father, who does good to the just and the unjust alike, in John's gospel Jesus places his own example front and center: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35). Here it is not simply the fact that Jesus loved that is to be imitated. It is not merely his obedience to the Law's commandment regarding neighbor-love that is being emphasized. It is the way that Jesus demonstrated love that is being held up as an example, and that is being presented as the basis for a "new commandment." 
The context is Jesus' washing of the disciples feet on Maundy Thursday. In a shocking display of love and humility, Jesus presents himself as a model in the way that he takes up the form of a servant: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you" (John 13:14-15). Later he raises the ante even further, identifying himself as the model of Christian love not only in his willingness to serve, but in his willingness to die. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12-13). Lest we are inclined to miss the seriousness of Jesus' new commandment, the Apostle John repeats it in his first epistle: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers and sisters" (1 John 3:16). 
These statements, drawn from Jesus' teachings in the various gospels, are not isolated declarations that can be explained away once put in context. On the contrary, they are consistently presented as establishing the model for Christian discipleship. They are programmatic and paradigmatic for the Christian life. There are many things that Christians are prohibited from doing in the gospels, and there are many things that Christians are commanded to do, but it is the call to take up one's cross and follow Jesus that provides the context for such proscriptions and prescriptions. The primary way in which believers are supposed to think of their moral lives is as an exercise in following Jesus, loving as Jesus loved, witnessing as Jesus witnessed, and suffering as Jesus suffered. This is at the heart of what it means to have the "mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16).
Paul's epistles pick up on this theme repeatedly. Most famous, perhaps, is his exhortation in Philippians 2, worth quoting at length if only to show how explicitly the apostle presents Jesus as an example for Christian imitation. After exhorting the Philippian Christians to love and serve one another, Paul writes, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (2:5-8). Similar, if less famous, exhortations abound in Paul's writings. 
The same is true of Peter. Exhorting Christian slaves to be subject even to unjust masters, Peter writes, "For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:21-23). Peter invokes Jesus' example again and again throughout the letter, reminding believers, as did Paul, that sharing in Christ's sufferings will enable them also to share in his glory (1 Peter 4:13). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews makes a parallel argument in Hebrews 12:1-4.

Clearly the imitation of Christ is a prominent, paradigmatic theme in the New Testament. Reformed Christians like to criticize the "WWJD" (What would Jesus do?) bracelets of a decade gone by, but, questions of style aside, perhaps such criticism is a bit too smug. 

It is true that the call to imitate Christ is often misunderstood and can easily be abused. Bavinck points out that the imitation of Christ became much more difficult when Christianity rose to cultural ascendency during the fourth century. It is one thing to imitate Christ when, like him, we find ourselves in a position of weakness and suffering. It is another thing to imitate Jesus when, in contrast to him, we occupy positions of power or influence. 

But the problem with the imitation of Christ does not simply arise when one occupies a position of cultural strength. Bavinck points out that over and over Christians seeking to imitate Christ fell into the temptation of reducing the imitation to some sort of external act or status. Early Christians emphasized the glories of martyrdom so much that they made it an end in itself, forgetting that Jesus suffered for a reason. Medieval monks glorified poverty and self-denial so much that they withdrew from the world into monasteries, forgetting that Jesus denied himself as a means of devoting himself to service to others.

In both cases the actions identified with the imitation of Christ were abstracted from their relationship to Christ's character and mission. Too often early and medieval Christians isolated the burden of the cross from the biblical story of creation and redemption, in which Christ's way of life is the means by which creation is liberated and reconciled rather than nullified or destroyed (Romans 8; Colossians 1:15-20). In short, they failed to do what the Heidelberg Catechism does: place the imitation of Christ in the broader context of his purposeful death and his triumphant resurrection. As Bavinck puts it, "if he is only an example then he comes to judge us and not to save us. Only when we know and experience him as Redeemer, as the one whose suffering covers our guilt and whose Spirit fulfills the law of God in us, only then do we dare to look at him and consider him our example."[3] It is the believer's "spiritual, living, communion with Christ," then, that is the "primary element of the imitation of Christ."[4]

But to criticize the mistakes that other Christians have made in seeking to follow Christ - even to make sure our own theological analysis is correct and orderly - is not to follow Christ. I would suggest (and in my next essay I will try to show) that if we truly understand the demands of the imitation of Christ in light of the gospel we will find that they become more demanding, not less. Jesus  told us to count the cost because the way is narrow, not broad. His call still beckons to us in the twenty-first century: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Matthew J. Tuininga teaches politics and core studies at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, and was recently appointed assistant professor of moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at 


[1] Herman Bavinck, "The Imitation of Christ I (1885/1886)" (trans. John Bolt). in John Bolt, A Theological Analysis of Herman Bavinck's Two Essays on the Imitatio Christi: Between Pietism and Modernism (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2013), pp.372-401 (372).

[2] Bavinck, "The Imitation of Christ," p.374.

[3] Bavinck, "The Imitation of Christ," p.394.

[4] Bavinck, "The Imitation of Christ," p.397.