Conformity to Jesus Part 2: Death and Resurrection With Christ
December 21, 2015
In Part 1 of this series I highlighted the prominent attention the New Testament gives to the call to Christians to imitate Christ. I introduced this theme as the first step in defending my thesis that 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. Here in Part 2 I want to argue that the imitation of Christ should be understood as the practical outworking of the Christian's obligation to be conformed to Jesus' death and resurrection.
It is, of course, the Apostle Paul whose writings most clearly emphasize the decisive significance of the Christian's union with Christ in his death and resurrection. What I want to emphasize here, following the Heidelberg Catechism, is that Paul consistently - in almost every one of his letters - makes the believer's union with Christ the paradigm for his instruction regarding the Christian life. Let me consider a few very prominent examples in Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians.
In Romans Paul's description of the believer's union with Christ flows out of his comparison of the death that human beings experience because of the sin of Adam to the life that they enjoy through the righteousness of Christ. Paul establishes the certainty that believers have been baptized into both Christ's death and his resurrection in Romans 6:1-14. His purpose in making this argument is obvious. It is to show believers that although they are under grace rather than under law - or to say it as Paul does, because they are under grace rather than under law - they are to "consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" and therefore to "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life" (6:11, 13).
Paul goes on to argue that it is not through the law that believers walk in the new life of righteousness. The law is good and has its purpose, but it is Jesus who delivers us from its condemnation. "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (8:3-4). Thus it is because the believer is united to Christ by his Spirit that the believer can live righteously. "But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (8:10).
Paul is clear that the experience of life and righteousness is only one side of the story here. If the believer would share with Christ in his glory, she must first share with him in his sufferings. And as Calvin points out in a myriad of places, it is precisely through this process of suffering that Christians are conformed to the image of Christ. "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters" (8:29).
Paul gets to the practical payoff of all of this in Romans 12 when he calls Christians to be "transformed by the renewal of your mind" (12:2). He reminds them that they are "one body in Christ" (12:5) and heaps a flurry of exhortations upon them, many of which are reminiscent of both Jesus' Sermon on the Mount and of Jesus' life. Fulfilling the law through love, they are to "cast off the works of darkness" (13:12) and, as Paul puts it in 13:14, "put on the Lord Jesus Christ." Chapter 15 then follows this exhortation with appeals to Christians to imitate Christ in the way that he sought to please and build up his neighbors (15:2-3), in the harmony of the body (15:5), in the way they welcome one another (15:7), and in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles (15:8). The driving theme of all of this exhortation is not a return to the law; it is conformity to Christ, in whom the law is fulfilled.
A similar pattern appears in Ephesians. In the first few chapters of the letter Paul shows that believers have been united with Christ in his death, resurrection, and ascension to lordship over all things. Christians have been "created in Christ Jesus for good works" (Ephesians 2:10), and together, whether Jews or Gentiles, they are being built up "in him" into the temple of God (2:22). Jesus has poured the gifts of ministry upon the church such that all believers might grow to maturity, "to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (4:13), to "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (4:15).
As in Romans, when it gets to the practical payoff in Ephesians Paul is thoroughly Christocentric. The Gentiles walk in darkness and immorality, he points out, "But that is not the way you learned Christ!" (4:20). Christians are to put off the "old man" and to put on the "new man," being renewed in their minds. Paul isn't simply using a random metaphor here. He is quite clear that this new man is Christ, the one who was "created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:22-24). Once again this leads to repeated, concrete invocations of the example of Christ. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (4:32). "[W]alk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (5:2). "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (5:25).
Finally, we see the pattern repeated in Colossians. Paul opens the letter by praying that the Colossian believers will be filled with "all spiritual wisdom and understanding , so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" (Colossians 1:9-10). He is explicit later in the letter that this wisdom and understanding is found in Christ (2:2-3), and that believers must therefore "walk in him" (2:6). After all, Christ is "the image of the invisible God" (1:15) the creator, reconciler, and basis for existence of all things. Paul therefore announces that he is more than willing to make up "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (1:24) in order that he might "present everyone mature in Christ" (1:28). Christians are free from the rulers and authorities, from the elementary principles of this world, and from the record of debt with its legal demands because they have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection. They are not to be enslaved to the shadows of the law but to follow Christ, who is the law's substance (2:16-17).
As Paul shifts toward the practical ethical implications in this letter, as in Romans and in Ephesians, he explicitly invokes the Christian's union with Christ as the basis for her ongoing conformity to Christ. Having been raised with Christ believers are to set their minds on Christ, in whom their lives are hidden. They have put off the old man with its practices and put on the new, "which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator" (3:10) whom we know from Colossians 1:15-16 is none other than Christ, the image of the invisible God and the creator of all things. Here, in the practices associated with the new man, old human distinctions mean nothing because "Christ is all, and in all" (4:11). Once again, the appeals to the imitation of Christ become explicit: "if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive" (4:13).
These texts demonstrate just how closely the Apostle Paul identifies the practical nature of the Christian life with the believer's conformity to Christ in his death and resurrection. And these are just the most explicit texts. I've ignored the many instances in which Paul calls Christians to serve Christ, to obey Christ, or to act "in Christ," all of which simply heighten the overwhelming Christocentricity of Paul's ethic. Indeed, appeals to Christ far, far outweight appeals to the law, or to nature, or to examples drawn from Israel and the Old Testament. Christ, after all, is the fulfillment and substance of the law and the creator of nature, and it is by following Christ and being conformed to him that believers fulfill the law and live as they were intended to live. He is the new creation, Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 5, and if any believer is in Christ, he is a new creation as well.
The upshot of all of this is that it is not Christ merely as an ethical teacher or exemplar to whom believers are to be conformed. Conformity to - and the imitation of - Jesus only makes sense in the context of his redemption of creation and fulfillment of the law. It is as believers fellowship with Christ through the Spirit that they put sin to death and put on the virtues and practices that testify that they are indeed new creations in him. Their imitation of Christ does not consist in a slavish imitation of external habits and circumstances associated with suffering and poverty but in the putting off of practices condemned by the law and the putting on of the righteousness that consists in the service of others and the harmony of a new community characterized by unity and peace.
As Herman Bavinck explains, "while Christ is to be followed in everything and by all men, this imitation is not rightly understood when it is seen as a slavish and narrow copying of his personal words and deeds. Rather it consists of a free, spiritual application of the principles by which he lived, completely fulfilling the moral law." "In him the law itself became personified and lived among us. All the virtues are found in him in complete harmony." I would only qualify Bavinck's argument here by emphasizing that it is not only insofar as Christ fulfilled the moral law that we are to be conformed to his example, but insofar as he exemplified the suffering service of the Gospel. Christ not only fulfilled the law; in lowering himself to the point of a servant, even to the point of the cross, he utterly transcended it. Here, too - here, especially - believers are called to follow him.
Nowhere is this purposeful, law-fulfilling, creation-affirming, Gospel-embodying imitation of Christ more clear than in the way the New Testament addresses Christian vocation. I turn to that in Part 3.
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 matthewtuininga.wordpress.com
 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),p. 396.
 Bavinck, "The Imitation of Christ," p.395.