Annoying the Right People
October 29, 2014
I can usually tell that I will like someone when they are criticized by those whose praise would be cause for concern. Such is the case with Mark Jones over at Ref21. It seems Mark has earned the sneers of the usual suspects over at the curmudgeon’s corner. The problem is that Jones won’t let go of his odd notion that Christlikeness may actually be a worthwhile pursuit for, you know, Christians.
I am relatively new to the Presbyterian fold but I have recently become aware of a category within the reformed world that has a blessedly small but rather vocal presence – Christians who disparage the pursuit of Christlikeness.
Now, I understand that mystics and moralists do some rather goofy things with the biblical calls to imitate Christ. But as odd as it may sound to some I do believe it is possible to understand the difference between thinking of Jesus as a mere moral exemplar and taking seriously Scripture’s calls to Christlikeness. Imagine my surprise when I found out that there were some smart Reformed guys who are not able to navigate that rather simple distinction.
At the risk of being dismissed as a “Biblicist” (yes, that’s a pejorative in some circles) I would cite the low hanging fruit of Ephesians 5:1 – “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children.” Well, that has to mean something. After careful study and parsing of the Greek I am convinced it does not mean, “Do not be imitators of God…” I’m also pretty sure that Paul did not write those words to teach us that only Jesus can imitate God. I imagine Paul knew that there are things about the nature and actions of God that humanity cannot imitate. Nevertheless we are called to imitate God in those ways that, by God’s grace, we are able.
I applied the same careful approach to the exegesis of Romans 8:29: “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.” There is certainly a freight train of theology in that single verse. I do not hold a PhD but I am persuaded that Paul is not suggesting that conformity to Christ is something to be disparaged.
In chapter 13 of his gospel, John describes the remarkable moment when Jesus took up a towel and basin and washed his disciple’s feet. Certainly this was to show them once again that he came not to be served but to serve. But this did not change the fact that Jesus was also doing something exemplary (It seems that Jesus can do two things at once): “For I have given you an example, that you should do just as I have done for you” (vs. 15).
Philippians 2 records Paul’s beautiful hymn to Christ. Those words focus especially on the voluntary humility of Christ. And wouldn’t you know it? In the midst of pointing us to the glories of Christ’s incarnation and his humiliation for the sake of sinners, Paul also says we ought to think of ourselves in lowly categories just as Christ did (vs. 5). We are even supposed to imitate some of the ways in which Christ thought!
Peter had to get in on the act as well. To the saints who were living under the heavy hand of persecution he wrote, “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” (1 Peter 2:21). That seems uncomfortably clear.
The apostle John joined the chorus. In his first epistle he makes quite clear those visible marks of genuine converts. John states definitevely, "By this we may know that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked" (1 John 2:6).
I’m beginning to think that Jesus and the apostles did not consider the call to imitate Christ a contradiction to the gospel or forensic justification. It seems that deliberately pursuing Christlikeness may actually be in harmony with gospel indicatives. It may even be consistent with being Reformed. But I am writing as a Biblicist.