The Imitation of Christ (1)
June 12, 2018
One of the great fictional adventure stories of all-time is one of the oldest: The Odyssey by Homer. In this book, the main character, Odysseus, along with his crew, are sailing home. During their long journey, they are forced to sail through a narrow strait between two rock peaks.
There were two mortal dangers on either side of the strait. They were called Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six-headed monster and if they got too close to her then she would swoop down and snatch six men for her dinner. Charybdis was a whirlpool and if they got too close to it then the whole ship would get sucked in and be completely destroyed.
Unfortunately, there was no middle ground. You couldn’t steer between them. If you steered out of range from Charybdis then Scylla would get you. And if you avoided Scylla then Charybdis would get you. You had to pick your poison. Odysseus was advised to steer close to Scylla and row as fast as they could. Losing six men is better than losing the whole crew. That is what Odysseus did. But they paid the price. Scylla snatched up the six strongest men on the ship.
When it comes to the imitation of Christ we need to be careful to avoid two mortal errors. On the one hand we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Jesus merely came to set an example for us to follow. And on the other hand, we must not believe that we don’t have to follow his example. These two errors are sometimes referred to as theological liberalism or moralism and antinomianism. Unfortunately, some people think that these are the only two options available. There is no way to navigate between them. Like Odysseus in The Odyssey, you have to steer towards one or the other. Indeed, some have steered to one simply to avoid the other. A hatred for liberalism and moralism has led some to be sucked up by the whirlpool of antinomianism. But there is a third way. We can and we must navigate our way between these two errors as did the puritan Nathanael Vincent did in his sermon entitled, "How Christ is to be Followed as our Example" (Puritan Sermons, 4:437-451).
The church I serve, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was born out of a necessary conflict with theological liberalism, which has plagued the church in one form or another for centuries. One of its key tenets is that Jesus is merely an example for us. Jesus didn’t atone for our sins on the cross so that believers might be forgiven. Rather, Jesus died to show us the way to live, that is, how to love God and one another. If we imitate Jesus then we will be able to create or recreate heaven on earth. We redeem ourselves and the world by loving one another just as Jesus loved us.
Although proponents of this view speak passionately about Jesus and love, they do not proclaim the Gospel. This view is not Christian in the least. It is a damning heresy. Vincent wrote:
To say that this [Christ suffered to leave us an example] was the principal end of his passion, to deny his satisfaction as if it were impossible or needless, is heretical in a very high degree. To deny the blood of Christ to be the price of our redemption, is to ‘deny the Lord that bought us.’ And truly, the only propitiatory sacrifice for sin being rejected, there is no other remaining, ‘but a certain fearful looking-for of judgment and of fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries’ (Heb. x. 27).”
Jesus is not just our example, or even primarily our example. He is, as Vincent put it, our example and our Redeemer. Or as J. Gresham Machen wrote in 1923, Jesus is not only the example of our faith, he is the object of our faith. In fact, if Jesus isn’t our redeemer then he isn’t a worthy example, because, as Machen pointed out, Jesus claimed to be far more. Since Jesus claimed to be our redeemer, then if he isn’t, he is a liar, or an ignorant and arrogant man, or something worse. He would not be the kind of man that you would want to follow.
Furthermore, we couldn’t imitate Jesus if he weren’t our redeemer. Showing us what we need to do and how we are to do it, isn’t going to help us because our fundamental problem isn’t ignorance. Our root problems are sin, sinfulness, death and the devil. If Jesus doesn’t save us from those things, then we won’t be able to love one another as Jesus has loved us. All the education and examples in the world can’t rescue the condemned sinner enslaved to sin who lies under the power of the evil one.
Thus, with respect to the imitation of Christ, we need to avoid the Scylla of theological liberalism or moralism. We also have to avoid the Charybdis of antinomianism, which we hope to consider in the next article.