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18. Being Perfect: Imitating God

Chapter 18

Being Perfect: Imitating God

The World Knows the Necessity of Perfection

Someone once gave me a baseball cap bearing the logo, “Strive For PERFECTION”. How appropriate! “Strive for” is in small letters, “Perfection” is in big letters arranged in a circle to symbolize perfection. These caps were issued to all employees of a large U.S. com­pany that manufactures electrical appliances and electronic products. The management gave out these caps to encourage every­one in the company to aim for ever higher standards of excellence in their work. Like many American com­panies, this company felt that they were falling behind the Japanese in product quality and innovativeness, as well as in commitment to their jobs and their company. So everyone was given a pep talk on the importance of excellence and perfection, and then given a cap. The idea was, of course, to remind every employee to strive for quality every time he or she sees “Strive for Perfection” on his own or a colleague’s cap.

It is striking that even a secular company knows that perfection is vital for survival, and that it cannot survive in this competitive world without it. Large industries and commercial enterprises understand very well that perfection is a necessity, not a luxury. Why are we Christians so slow to understand what the world understands so readily? Is an explan­ation to be found in the Lord’s words, “The sons of this age are more shrewd (wiser, KJV) in relation to their own kind than the sons of light” (Lk.16.8)?

Satisfied With Mediocrity?

Christians, we are told, are “God’s workman­ship”. Is God satis­fied with imperfect work? Deuteronomy 32.4 says of God that “His work is perfect”. But I wonder whether a non-Christ­ian who looks at a Christian might be disap­pointed by God’s “workmanship” and ask, “Is this really God’s workman­ship that I am seeing in this Christian?”

There is no question that Paul does say explicitly that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph.2.10). Do we dare dishonor God by living a life that causes people to say, “Is this God’s workman­ship? What a disgrace! The Japanese can make a better TV set than God makes a Christian. The Christian’s life gives such a fuzzy pic­ture that nothing of value can be seen in it. Never mind high definition quality, it’s hard to discern any evidence of a new life quality in this Christian. Is this really God’s workmans­hip?”

If the world understands the impor­tance of perfect­ion for sur­vival, why can’t Christ­ians understand? Most Christians think that perfection is a luxury, a non-essent­ial, an extracurri­cular act­ivity for people who have idle time on their hands (even though most of these critical Christians have a lot of time to watch TV!). All we want is salvation; who wants to talk about perfection?

If that is your way of thinking, then you still do not understand what perfection is, nor do you realize that perfection is required of you. Why would God require us to be perfect if it is non-essential? Is it because He thinks we have too much time to play with? Or that we have nothing better to do with our lives than to polish brass knobs and make things look a bit shinier?

Both Perfection and Salvation are Rooted in the “Obedience of Faith”

Many Christians are spiritually stagnant because they do not aspire to spiritual excell­ence, which they consider unnecessary or too costly. Stagnation, to change the metaphor, is spiritual paralysis if not death. If anyone in this condition still considers himself/herself to be saved, he/she will do well to think again.

The Bible affirms that perfection is an integral part of salvation. That means that if we hope for a place among those who are saved, then perfection must also be an integral part of our lives.

“You are to be perfect” (Mt.5.48) is in the imperative mood, indicating a command. You may ask, “What has this got to do with sal­vation?” The answer is that obedience to God is essential for salvation; the disobedient will certainly not be saved.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul gives the one and only systematic exposition on salvation in the New Testament. It is note­worthy that this exposition has the phrase “the obedience of faith” both at its beginning and its conclusion (Ro.1.5; 16.26). Faith without obedience is not saving faith. To address God as Lord and yet refuse to obey Him is to make a mockery of professed faith and to insult the Lord.

In the previous chapter we saw that in Scripture, perfection as it concerns us in the present time (namely, the second type of perfection in Philippians 3) is primarily an attitude of the heart. That is precisely what the obed­ience of faith is. Romans 6.17 affirms that “you became obedient from the heart” to the teaching of God’s word, and as a result you were set free from sin and became slaves of righteousness (v.18).

To understand better the matter of spiritual obedience, let us look at the whole passage and note the repeated occurrence of the words “obedience” (or “obey”) and “slave” (of whom absolute obed­ience was required):

Do you not know that when you present yourselves to some­one as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. (Ro.6.16-18)

What does this mean? It means that obedience is the basic reality of the spiritual life, because the hard reality is that everyone in this world, with­out any exception, is a slave. But there is good news: God has given every one of us the freedom to choose whose slave we will be; slaves don’t normally have such a choice. We can choose to give our allegiance to sin or to righteousness in Christ, to obey the one or the other. Paul also makes it clear that this ultimately involves a choice between life and death.

If we genuinely acknowledge Christ as Lord and we ourselves as his slaves, then we would gladly obey his commands, not least because he loved us and gave himself for us to deliver us from sin. But any failure to obey him is to sin again.

Biblical Principles of imitating God

(1) Imitating God with our Hearts

What does obedience of heart mean? It certainly means far more than obeying external rules and regulations. It means rather a con­forming of our hearts to God’s heart; this in turn means that God becomes the model and the pattern of the way we live, think and feel.

That is why Paul says, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph.5.1). “Be” is in the imperative mood; it is a command or exhortat­ion. Notice, too, that this instruction is given to those who are God’s “children,” indeed, “beloved children”. And how can anyone be God’s child unless he is “born of God” (1Jo.3.9, etc)?

This means, therefore, that the call to imitate God is issued to all who are born anew, who are regenerate, and who have God as Father. Every true child of God will not only see it as an obliga­tion to imitate his Father with his heart, but also have it as his heart’s desire to do so.

The implications of this are profound. Let us by God’s grace seek to understand what this instruction means for the Christian life, and why if we don’t fulfill it, we won’t know the reality and the power of life in Christ. In what specific ways can we imitate God?

(1) Giving what is most precious to us.

We can begin with this astonishingly selfless action coming straight from the Father’s heart: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (Jo.3.16). To “imitate God,” in this case, obviously means to love as He loved, for He loved us to the extent of costing Him what was most precious to Him.

(2) Loving those who do not love us.

In imitating Him, we need to see that God’s amazing love in giving His Son, was a love poured out not just for those who love Him but for “the whole world” (1Jo.2.2) which does not acknowledge Him, which spurns Him, and which is at enmity with Him! God not only gives rain and sunshine to the evil and the good (Mt.5.45), He gives them even His “one and only Son” (NIV)! Can we follow Him in doing that? Unless He transforms our hearts, we certainly won’t be able to.

(3) Reconciling the world to God.

In giving His Son, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2Cor.5.19). Will we follow Him in reconciling the world to God? In the call to imitate God, our life mission has been marked out for us. God, by His own example, sets before us the scope and the standard of what we are called to imitate, to reproduce in our lives, to put into practice—and it leaves us breathless! But His Holy Spirit (pneuma, the word also means “breath”) will sustain and strengthen us as we follow Him.

(2) Imitating Him means Following Him, Following Him means Imitating Him

Paul sometimes speaks of imitating God, sometimes of imitating Paul himself, and sometimes of imitating the churches. Why speak of imitat­ing in different ways? The reason is that our spiritual perception is rather limited, so we don’t know how to imitate God in every situation. We need to see a true Christian in person, and imitate him. That is why Paul says, “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ” (1Cor.11.1). But if Paul is not around, whom do we imitate? He says, “For you, brethren, became imita­tors of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea” (1Thess.2.14). We can imitate those churches in which God’s life is effectively mani­fested.

The New Testament brings out this principle in yet another way. In John 14.6, Jesus says, “I am the way.” For that reason, in the book of Acts, the church or the Christian community is described as those “belonging to the Way” (9.2); while the gospel, of which Christ is the center, is called “the Way” (19.9,23; 24.14,22). The churches or people who live faithfully according to God’s word thereby embody “the Way” in their lives and thus become worthy models for other people to emulate.

Disciples are followers of the Way. What do we do on a road or highway? Do we simply “believe” in the road, whatever that means? That alone won’t get us anywhere. We must walk in the way, and follow it.

Did we arrive at the church service by sitting in our rooms and believing that there is a road that leads to the church building? Do we arrive at salvation simply by believing in the existence of a way to it? Did our friend here come from Toronto by closing his eyes and saying, “I believe in Highway 401 with all my heart”? And when he opened his eyes, presto, he found himself in Montreal! We immed­iately see the absurdity of this scenario. We are perceptive in world­ly things but dull in spiritual things. A person may be clever at his research laboratory, reeling off chemical formulas or mathematical equations, yet dull in spiritual matters.

When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” what is he telling us? That we close our eyes and believe in the Way in “simple faith”—and we thus suddenly arrive at where the Father is? Let us ask again, “What do we do with the Way?” Obviously, we follow it if we hope to arrive at the place to which the way leads. When the road turns left, we turn left. When it turns right, we turn right. We follow it resolutely wherever it leads if we are to arrive at our desired destination.

What emerges from the fact that Jesus is the Way is a picture of salva­tion that few Christians have seen: Salva­tion has to do with a commitment to follow Jesus wherever he leads. This specifi­cally means that our lives conform to his as our way of life. Jesus is the model, the pattern, the template, according to which the Holy Spirit daily fashions us, so that we will finally be fully conformed to his image (Ro.8.29). God saved us, put us through a new birth, and made new creatures of us precisely so that we may have His life and bear His glorious likeness. But this requires that we faithfully follow Him.

(3) Saved By Merely Believing that Jesus Died for Us? Is Imitating God Unnecessary?

But popular teaching says nothing about the necessity of imit­ating God or following Jesus. Is it possible to be saved without fol­lowing “the way” of salvation? Is Jesus not that “Way”? Yet pop­ular teaching maintains that all that is needed for salvation is to “believe that Jesus died for you”. Is this really so? To find out whether this accords with the Scriptures, I searched through all my con­cordances for such a statement, or some­thing similar to it. I searched through every available list to ensure that I had not missed anything, yet nothing of this kind could be found! [60]

The statement, “You are saved by believing that Jesus died for you,” is a Christian cliché that we hear so often that we don’t bot­her to question it. But it is necessary, for the sake of our salva­tion, that we subject our doctrines to the rigorous scrutiny of God’s word. Does the word of God say anything to that effect? Have you checked the Bible on this point? Which New Testament passage says that we are saved by believing that Jesus died for us? Even a determined search will discover no such statement. Does it surprise you that Scripture never makes such a statement?

How easily we make logical errors in spiritual things. Jesus came to save us, right? Right! Jesus died for us, right? Right! We are saved by faith, right? Right!

All three statements can be confirmed from Script­ure separately. Taking the three separate statements, we can combine them into one acceptable formula: I am saved by believing that Jesus came into the world to die for me. Right? Wrong!

These three statements are separately correct, but the combin­ation is wrong and fallacious. Firstly, as we have seen, Scripture never says that we are saved by believing that Christ died for us.

Secondly, in Scripture, the object of faith is not the death of Christ but Christ himself. We place our faith in a Person, not in an historic event. Only God in Christ is the object of our faith.

Thirdly, the combination of the three elements produces an incor­rect result. To use an analogy, we can say that a human being has a head, two arms and two legs; so far so good. We cannot, of course, combine the three statements and accept as its logical conclusion that man is composed only of a head, two arms and two legs. The individual premises are correct, but the conclusion drawn from com­bining them is false and ludicrous. We have overlooked something in the process. Having omitted the torso, we ended up with a monster composed only of a head, two arms and two legs.

Similarly, the statement, “We are saved by believing that Christ died for us,” is incomplete and, as such, is false. It is not the whole truth, and is for that reason a misrepresentation when stated as all that is needed for salvation. We are not saved simply by believing that Christ died for us. He has indeed died for us, but equally im­portant is that we die with Christ; for unless his death takes effect in me, it cannot be effective for me. To be saved and become a new person is not merely a matter of an external transaction but of an inner transformation.

Romans 10.9

Moreover, it is simply not true to Scripture to maintain that all that is needed for salvation is believing in Jesus’ death for us. The Apostle declares, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Ro.10.9). Here several other important things are stated as necessary for salvation: (1) public confession of Jesus’ lord­ship, (2) believe in your heart, (3) believe in his resurrection by God’s power. To omit all this is no less disastrous for faith and salvation than omitting the torso of a person and thus truncating him.

Philippians 2.12,13

It is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ’s death and his resurrect­ion life effective in us though our union with Christ. Notice the important words “with Christ”. These words won’t mean much to us unless we identify with him by following him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In other words, we “work out” (through following him) what God “works in” us (Phil.2.12,13) through our union with Christ. In the process of salvation, the out-working must necessarily follow from His in-working.

What does this “in-working” mean in experiential terms? Does it not mean that the Holy Spirit is transforming our “inner man” into the likeness of Christ in every way? What does our “out-working” of it mean? Does it not mean that we, on our part, conform all our thoughts and deeds to that likeness which God is working in us—which is exactly what “imitating Christ” means?

(4) Identifying With Christ

The word “identify” is very important. Oxford Concise Dictionary defines it as “to associate oneself inseparably with a party, policy, person”. Applying this to Christ, it means to associate oneself insep­arably with Christ.

John epitomizes identification with Christ in these memorable words, “As he is, so are we in this world” (1Jo.4.17). His state­ment is particu­larly appropriate because the whole verse speaks of perfect love and of the Day of Judgment (which of course concerns salvation): “By this love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as he is, so are we in the world.” Three things are firmly linked together here: perfection (of love), salvation (confidence at the final judgment), and identification with Christ.

How do I become perfect? By observing Jesus with binoculars from afar? By consulting Encyclopedia Britannica under “perfect”? Certainly not. I must associate myself inseparably with Christ, going where he goes, following his every step, and learning from him constantly.

Every New Testament writer has his own way of expressing it. Paul uses the word “imitate” whereas Peter uses the expression “follow in his steps” (1Pet.2.21). Where the Lord Jesus takes a step, there we put our foot; when he takes another step, we follow him in that footstep too. We are inseparably associated with him in everything he does, thus learning to become like him under the teaching of the Holy Spirit.

(5) Learning by Imitation

A long time ago, I was the pitcher in a baseball team. Unfortunately for us, there was a rival team whose pitcher would always demolish us by pitching his fastball. It was so fast that before you even had a chance to swing the bat, the ball would whiz by! All you could hear was a loud clap in the catcher’s glove. It was frustrating. How do you hit a ball that approaches you at that speed? No wonder professional players are paid astronomical salaries for hitting a tiny ball. Some people study hard in the hope of earning a decent salary, yet profess­ional baseball players are paid millions just to whack a ball! What is more, they miss the ball more often than they hit it!

But if you think these players are incompetent athletes despite all their training, just go onto the field and try hitting a ball that comes at you at 95 miles an hour (150 km/h). See if you can hit it, even if you are paid two million dollars a year for doing it. The ball is simply too fast. I used to stand there looking like a com­plete fool because as the pitcher was winding up for the pitch, the next thing I heard was a loud crack in the catcher’s glove. I wasn’t even given a chance—or the dignity—to swing the bat!

I then decided to do something about it. Did I pick up a textbook on baseball techniques? No, I began to study every move of this pitcher’s, right down to the last detail: how he held the ball, where he placed his foot, how his body wound back, how he lunged forward, how he delivered the pitch. I imitated his moves, but found myself all twisted up! I couldn’t even throw the ball at 20 mph, never mind 95 mph.

But I kept on working at it. I knew his every move had a reason for it. I knew I couldn’t pitch like him because I hadn’t mastered his moves. So I imitated them down to the last detail, and eventually my pitches got faster and faster. At first I was aching all over, but I persevered in imitating his every move. Finally, after almost a year of hard training, the day came for me to give my opponents the same problems that we used to get from this pitcher. They would raise their bats and the ball would whiz by. You could see the look of surprise on their faces. I continued to improve to the point where few people could hit my pitches. I had finally imitated this pitcher to per­fection. To learn from a teacher, we must imitate him in the minutest details.

(6) Discipleship means Imitating Christ

When Paul says, “Be imitators of God” (Eph.5.1), is he speaking to those who have too much time on their hands? Certainly not. Pre­cisely because it is vital for our salva­tion, we must let the apostle’s exhortation be deeply imprinted in our hearts.

Jesus taught the same truth from the start: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.27). Such a person cannot be the Lord’s disciple, not even if he calls himself a Christian. A true Christian—a disciple—is one who follows in the footsteps of his Lord. What does Jesus require of his disciples but to imitate him? The Lord bears his own cross and says to us, “Come with me, go where I go, and do what I do; carry your cross as I carry mine, and thus you will be my disciple.” To follow him is to imitate him in every­thing, but above all his attitude. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil.2.5). Discipleship is not just external imit­ation.

Many think that the imitation of Christ is a spiritual exercise for people like Thomas à Kempis, whose book The Imitation of Christ is thought by some to advocate a higher level of Christianity. That is a wrong understanding because imitation is basic to discipleship; its aim is to become like Christ. Why would we want to be his followers if we don’t want to be like him?

“Christian” is simply a name for a disciple of Christ. “Christian” occurs only 3 times in the New Testament whereas “disciple” (μαθητής, mathētēs) occurs 261 times. Acts 11.26 says, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”

From the first day of our Christian life, we are called to take up our cross daily (Lk.9.23). The cross is the instrument of the death of our old person or ego, allowing us to follow Christ in newness of life as a new person in him. The cross is the indispensable means by which God fashions us into Christ’s image. Being liberated from sin (justification) and being transformed into his image (i.e. renewed towards perfection) are what constitute the Christian life; and this life is a great and wonderful experience.

(7) Evading the Cost of Following Him

It should now be clear that only someone who actually follows Jesus is truly a disciple of his. If we “believe” but do not follow, we are not his disciples. Only when our believ­ing is of a kind that causes us to take up our cross and follow him are we genuinely his disciples.

What does it mean to take up our cross? Since it is Jesus we are following, we need only ask, “What did taking up the cross mean for Jesus himself?” The apostle Paul says of 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. (Phil.2.6-8, ESV)

Looking at these words, can we still say we don’t know what it means for us to take up our cross? Could it be that we prefer not to face the issue, not to think about it, not to know? Perhaps we prefer to evade it because the cost of discipleship is too high for us. It costs us nothing to believe, but it costs us everything to follow and to imitate him.

Here we see two fundamentally different posi­tions: a faith that costs nothing (and which bears no spiritual fruit because it has no life) versus the imitation of Christ in the Script­ural sense of follow­ing the Lord at all times. For this, according to John, is the mark of true disciples: “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev.14.4)—no matter what may be the cost, as is abundantly clear in the book of Revelation.

Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jo.10.27). How can a sheep survive without its shepherd? If the Jesus is our Shepherd (Lord and Savior) and we are his sheep, the question is not whether the cost of following him is too high but, rather, “what is the cost of not following him?” It is a question of surviving or perishing, of life or death. A moment’s reflection will help us to see that we simply can­not afford not to follow him.

Yet there are those who evade Jesus’ call because they fear it will cost them every­thing in this earthly life. They are blind to the fact that by clinging to their earthly values and valuables, they forfeit eternal values and eternal life. As Jesus said, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mk.8.36; Lk.9.25).

Yet there are never lacking those who stubbornly believe that they can gain the world and save their souls; that they can serve both God and Mammon. They think they understand spirit­ual things better than Jesus himself! So they opt for a salvation by easy-believism or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who died for his faith in a Nazi prison) rightly called “cheap grace”. Unfortunately for them, cheap grace will never save anyone; true grace is never cheap.

(8) “With” Christ at Baptism

Following Jesus involves being united with him, joined together with him. This takes place right at the beginning of the Christian life, and finds expression in baptism. Paul expounds its meaning in Romans 6 where in just five verses he uses the term “with Christ” (or “with him”) five times:

We were buried with him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resur­rection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be ­slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Ro.6.4-8)

Here “with” occurs five times in relation to Christ.[61] In each case, the Greek word “syn” (σύν, which means “together with”) is used. This word often appears as a prefix to another word, even in English. For ex­ample, the English word sym­phony, derived from “syn” and “phōnē” (φωνή, sound), gives a picture of people playing music together and producing harmony of sound. Another example is “to die with,” which translates one Greek word synapothnēskō (συναποθνήσκω, Mk.14.31; 2Cor.7.3; 2Ti.2.11). The “with” (syn) here indicates a to­getherness in a bond of union and identification.

If we are united with him, how can we not follow him? Conversely, if we are not following him, it would indicate a serious problem in regard to our union with him, if indeed we have been united with him. But if we are united with him, how can we not conform our lives to his? Those who are truly united with him will certainly imitate him (conform their lives to his).

(9) Imitating God, the Way to Knowing Him Experientially

But before we consider “with Christ” more deeply, let me mention one or two things about the word “know” that Paul uses in this passage (Ro.6.6). Here the Greek word for “know” (ginōskō) means experiential knowledge rather than head know­ledge (for which oida would be used instead).

There are two ways of knowing something: one way is hearing or reading about it, the other is experiencing it. When you read a book about something, it is just head know­ledge. It is not real to you until you experience it. Let’s take an example. You already know something about Australia, as does every schoolboy and schoolgirl. Australia has kanga­roos, koalas, wombats and other cute creatures. Australia also has vast deserts. You might not like deserts but you love the koalas. You know about Australia in terms of its geo­graphy, its flora and fauna, its distinctive features such as the Great Barrier Reef. But if you haven’t visited Australia, then you don’t really know Australia. Aust­ralia would be just head knowledge to you, being little more than a country in a world atlas. To know Australia, you must go there, talk to the people, listen to the Aussie accent, and view the land­scape.

Do you know Jesus, or do you only know about Jesus? If you don’t know him, you are believing in a person who is not real to you person­ally. How can Jesus be real to you if he is just a name in the Bible? You may know that the name “Jesus” occurs some 917 times in the Bible, but do you know the person behind the name? He is real to you only if you have experienced him.

Why was the Lord so real to Paul? It was because he met with the Lord on the Damascus road in an encounter that changed his life. When we experience the Lord, even if not in the same way as the apostle did (the Lord meets each of us in a different way), he will be real to us too.

Is experiencing God limited to people like Paul? Certainly not. We too can experience God and the reality of the spiritual life, and go beyond mere head knowledge about Him. It can be affirmed on the basis of both Scripture and experience that no Christian who has died with Christ will fail to know him in increasing measure.

What are the steps to knowing the Lord experientially?

(1) Die with Christ so as to Enter into New Life

In the passage we just quoted from Romans, Paul says we experientially know that “our old self was crucified with him” (Ro.6.6). Here is some­thing significant: To die with Christ is nothing but imitating him—he dies and we follow him; hence we “imitate” him by dying with him. This vital first step of imitat­ing him by joining with him in his death is what lays the found­ation for our knowing him experientially.

The link between imitating him (in the Biblical, spiritual sense) and experiencing him should now be obvious. The Biblical link between the terms “imitate Christ” and “with Christ” should now also be obvious, for being “with Christ” undoubtedly involves doing what he does, that is, imitating him.

Is all this true in our experience? Have we ex­perienced the reality of the old self as having been crucified with Christ? Most Christians would have to answer “no” to this question, whereas Paul says with confidence that, “our old self was crucified with him so that… we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” We can know experientially, not theoretically, whether we are slaves or not. If we are still slaves of sin, we would know from daily experience that we are unable to do the good we want to do.

If we don’t experience freedom from sin, in what sense are we saved from sin? And if we are not saved from sin, in what sense are we saved?

There are many who profess to having been Christians for a long time, yet who have never experienced the reality of the new life in Christ. They know they are still enslaved to the power of sin, to the self, to covetous­ness, to worldliness. Not having exper­ienced the reality of the Christian life, they finally realize that they are unregenerate. How many years must pass before you discover that you are not born of God? Many people reach that point only after realizing that their daily Christian life is no different from that of a non-Christian, living in spiritual emptiness, defeat and frust­ration.

But do they believe that Jesus died for them? Oh yes they do. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their belief. Why then are they still unregenerate? Beloved, it is because they have never died with him. They haven’t been united with him in his death and therefore cannot enter into the new life in Christ.

Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross won’t mean much to us until we die with him. O Lord, teach us about your death for us, but not just with the heart-rending story of the nails driven into your hands and feet, but through our being united with you!

Paul says, “We have died with Christ” (v.8). This death is specifically death to sin because verse 10 says, “The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.”

In saying we are united with Christ in his death, we don’t mean that we die his very death (which is impossible), but that we die a “death like his”. Verse 5 says, “If we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” Doesn’t the word “likeness” here refer to our being made to imitate him in his death and resurrection? What does the word “imitate” mean but to “follow example of; mimic; be (consciously or not) like” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1964).

Remarkably, this imitating or this reproducing in us of what took place in Christ in regard to his death and resurrection, is God’s work in us; it is not something we ourselves did, or could have done (cf. the passive: “our old man was crucified with him”, v.6). So now we are called to work out what God has worked in us; that “working out” is what imitating Christ means.

We thus arrive at the striking realization that salvation has to do with “imitating Christ” from beginning to end. He began that salvation in us, and will complete it in us in when he brings us to final perfection. Now we see why Jesus is called “the author and perfecter of faith” (Heb.12.2). God’s plan of salvation has to do with our being conformed to Christ from its commencement to its com­pletion.

For our part, although we cannot die Christ’s death, we can die “in the likeness of his death”. What does that mean? Just as he died to sin (v.10), so we die to sin. In this way we share in the likeness of his death to sin; it is a death to sin like his. United to him by grace through faith, we have finished with sin once and for all. No one should be baptized who is not committed to terminating an existence under sin.

Sin is every form of disobedience to God. It is firmly lodged in our flesh (Ro.7.17,18); hence to finish with sin I must finish with the flesh. I must finish with everything that is carnal within me, especially the carnal way of thinking. From now on I live under the leading, control and empowering of the Holy Spirit.

The counterpart to “the likeness of his death” is “the likeness of his resurrection” (Ro.6.5). His resurrection is what makes the new life not just a possibility for us, but a reality in us. Dying with him is not an end in itself but the doorway into the new life in Christ. In this new life, we are like Christ, in that the life we live we live to God (Ro.6.10).

(2) Buried With Christ so as to Rise to a New Kind of Life

Secondly, “we have been buried with him” (Ro.6.4; Col.2.12). The term “buried with” translates one Greek word, synthaptō (συνθάπτω). Try to imagine a hole in the ground which you step into to be buried. To be buried with Christ is to finish with the world, with the world finished with you. Death terminates every­thing you have in the world. Of what value is money or possess­ions to a dead man?

You might say, “This is get­ting frightening!” You’re right; your fear is quite just­ified. As we have seen, “believing” costs us nothing but follow­ing Jesus will cost us everything. It cost Jesus everything, including his own life, to save us. Can we truly be his followers if we are not prepared to take up our cross for his sake?

Do we remember the account of the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How would we have answered that question? Surely we would have said, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved”. That answer would be correct if by “believe” we mean the same as what Paul meant: “the obedience of faith,” which we considered earlier.

How does Jesus answer the man’s question? In exactly the same way: The first part of his answer addresses the matter of obedience; the second part has to do with faith. Accordingly, Jesus first answers, “You know the commandments” (Mk.10.19). The man re­plies, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Jesus now comes to the second part of his answer which is a call for faith: “One thing you lack: go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” (v.21). Without faith, obedience to God’s commands is nothing more than an exter­nal act without spiritual value; but a faith that doesn’t respond in total obedience to the Lord’s call is not faith that leads to eternal life.

Sadly, the rich young man didn’t have the faith to respond positively to Jesus’ call to follow him. When he heard Jesus’ words, “his face fell, and he went away grieved, for he was one who owned much property” (v.22). Was it worth giving up the chance to inherit eternal life in order to cling to earthly wealth for the few remaining decades of his earthly existence? But this young man didn’t have the faith to discern the priceless value of the eter­nal as opposed to earthly transience. He lacked faith, and with it the obedience of faith. Consequently, eternal life eluded him. He let the opportunity to inherit eternal life slip from his grasp. He turned his back on a priceless treasure for the sake of fading and decaying temporal possessions. At the final judgment he will have ample occasion to bemoan his unspeakable foolishness. But if we lack the obedience of faith as he, we will be no better off ourselves.

We must die with Christ. If the rich young ruler had been willing to do that, would he have worried about his possessions? We must make up our minds about whether to die with Christ or not. But if we die with Christ, our lives won’t be the same. Our relationship to the world will change beyond recognition. If nothing changes in our lives, it means that we are not followers of Jesus.

At the risk of repeating myself: Believing by itself changes nothing. Following Christ changes everything. Identifying with Christ in his death and in his life will turn your life upside-down. It will sever your link to the world. You will view the world with different eyes.

(3) Crucified with Christ so as to be Free from Continuing in Enslavement to Sin

Paul talks about being crucified with Christ: “Our old self was crucified with him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be enslaved to sin” (Ro.6.6).

In contrast to what Paul affirms here, there is a general preference among Christians for the idea that our old self was crucified in Christ, rather than with Christ. So they take the liberty to make a subtle change that results in a fundamental change. What is the resulting difference? “In” Christ, used with reference to his death, indicates that something was done in him for us, which leaves dying with him redundant. The latter is not usually stated, but the emphasis on the “in” to the exclusion of the “with” makes the implication of the redundancy of the latter inescapable.

It means that it is not we who die, but only that we die in Christ who acts as our representative. Insofar as our representative has died for us, we died in him, that is, whatever was done by him for us is considered as having happened to us in him who represents us.

This is not entirely untrue because Jesus is indeed our Representative (2Cor.5.14), but it is untrue if the “in” is made to exclude the “with”. The fact is that nowhere in the New Testament is there a statement which says that we “died in Christ” when referring to our dying to the old life under sin; it is always died or crucified “with Christ”. “In Christ” always refers to life, the new life in Christ, which will be brought to its full consummation at the Resurrection (1Cor.15.22).

But on the “died in Christ” interpretation or, rather, misinter­pretation, death is not something that needs to happen to us because it has happened to him on our behalf. He does all the dying, I do all the living! I die in Christ, the representative man. This suits our carnal mind just fine, because it allows us to get on with our own lives and remain “Christ­ians” who have not changed one iota. But let us understand this: if we intend to be true followers of Jesus we must start at the cross, and God won’t finish His work in us until He has changed us so completely that we won’t recog­nize ourselves!

There is truth in the statement that Jesus acts as our representative, not least in his role as Mediator (1Ti.2.5; Heb.8.6; 9.15; 12.24), but that is not directly relevant here. What is directly relevant is a clearer under­standing of the term “in Christ”. This term is certainly a most important truth revealed in Scripture, and for that reason it must not be willfully or ignorantly misused.

“In Christ” speaks of the living relationship we have with him in our union with him. It speaks of our life in him. But “in Christ” is never used with reference to our initial death with him (on the spiritual level) when we were crucified with him at baptism. When speaking of that death we consistently encounter the term “with Christ”. But when speak­ing of the new life, it is consistently “in Christ”. Failure to grasp these vital truths will lead to confusion and error. It is erroneous to speak of our having “died in Christ” to imply that we didn’t really die to sin except in some vague sense in the person of our Repres­entative. (For a more detailed study of the two terms “with Christ” and “in Christ,” see the Appended Note at the end of this chapter.)

(4) Live in Christ and thus Experience the Dynamic of the New Life

If we have died with Christ, we now live in him, and experience the power of the resurrection life as we “walk in newness of life” (Ro.6.4). Many Christians don’t know what it is to live in the resur­rection power of Christ because they haven’t died with Christ. You can be a so-called Christian without experiencing any spiritual change. Not having been changed, your behavior remains that of a non-Christian, you think like a non-Christian, and indulge in sinful thoughts in the secrecy of your heart even while bearing the name “Christian”. At church you speak pious things so that people may regard you as a real Christian. But God looks into the heart and knows us for what we really are.

But the true Christian, the one who lives in Christ, is one who follows him and models himself on him, imitating his holiness, his merciful­ness, his wisdom, his single-minded focus on his mission, his communion with the Father. He patterns his whole life on Christ, and follows in his footsteps from the first step to the last. That first step is to walk into the grave—into death—having been crucified with him.

As people mocked Jesus, so we stand to be mocked with him. Hebrews 13.13 says, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (NIV). As they spat on him, so they may spit on us, for we are finished with the world (Gal.6.14).

How much do we cherish our material pos­sessions? And our family? “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Mt.10.37) Even our relationship to our dear ones will have to change. It doesn’t mean that we love them less, but that we love them differ­ently—and more deeply than they realize. It is a different and deeper kind of love. God’s power changes even the way we love. It changes our aspirations for ourselves and for our loved ones.

The command to be perfect is a call to be like Christ, to follow in his steps, to identify with him in every aspect of our lives. It is a call to take up our cross and follow him daily (Lk.9.23). Day by day the cross will transform our thinking. We are being made conformable to his death (Phil.3.10). As a result we experience his power and victory in our Christian lives. We follow the Lord day by day, learning to think his thoughts, and going in the direction of his life as he leads us. We learn to do all things with the salvation of mankind in mind, for Jesus died not for himself but for others.

It is our daily call to be conformed to him in our thinking. Whenever a thought comes to our mind, “We take every thought cap­tive to make it obedient to Christ” (2Cor.10.5). We apply this to every decision in our lives, always seeking to do his perfect will. For this we need to be in constant communion with him. People will notice that you are different, not just because you are a nice person, but because they sense God’s power in you.

Many Christians are nice people. Many non-Christians are nice people too, but does that make them Christians? Being nice is not what being a Christian is all about. If you are a true Christian, your very presence ought to convict people of sin. They may dislike you for that reason, but they will sense God’s presence and holiness in you, and in the way you think and conduct yourself.

(5) Imitate Christ and End Self-Centeredness

What is our way of thinking? Are we self-centered, being always con­scious about ourselves and our needs? If we have not died with Christ, we cannot avoid being the center of our own thinking. But when we imitate Christ, he will be the center of our thinking. That is why we look to Jesus (Heb.12.2). The purpose of looking to Jesus is to imitate him and the pattern of his life.

As we progress towards perfection, our focus will move away from ourselves to God, the Father of Jesus Christ. If we are still the focus of our own lives, then we are still unregenerate. But if we focus on God in all things, remarkable things will take place in our lives. As a bonus, it can even eliminate nervous tension! Many people are tense because they are conscious about themselves all the time. But when we forget about ourselves and focus on Jesus as the pattern of our lives, amazing things will happen; we will experience God’s work in us and through us to others. We now pursue a goal that transcends ourselves. Our life radiates upward and outward. We start to think of other people and the needs of the church rather than our own needs.

Of course we must weigh our priorities. Some people will take up a lot of our time just when the church needs our attention. In assessing what is important, we may have to put the interests of the church before the interests of the individual. He or she may feel unhappy about it, but our conscience is clear because we are doing this for the sake of the church and not for ourselves. When you labor for the general good, some people, even members of your own family, may be unhappy with you.

If we follow Christ’s pattern, living for the sake of others, our lives will be focused. Nervous tension will disappear, and we will sleep better. When we are tired, we tend to focus on ourselves and our exhaustion. But now we turn our attention to the Lord and say to him, “I am tired but I turn my heart and mind to you. As you lived and died for others, so I will imitate you. By your grace I will forget about my fatigue and com­plete what needs to be done”. The tiredness won’t drag us down because we will experience the Lord strengthening us in our weak­ness. Wonder­ful things happen when Jesus Christ is our model, our pattern.

There is another important point about copying something or some­one. Do we still remember our time in school when we were asked to copy a picture or draw a picture of something? To draw as accu­rate a picture as possible, we had to look at the pattern or model constantly, often rubbing out a line here and there on the drawing, and redrawing it to conform more closely to the model being copied. Our eyes and our thoughts had to be focused on the model we were copying. This is precisely what is happening when we are copying the life and character of Jesus into our own lives. Our thinking has to be con­stantly focused on him. It is in that focusing on him that we are being changed into his image by God’s power. Moreover, imita­ting Jesus keeps him in the center of our hearts and minds constantly.

 

 An Appended Note: “With Christ” and “In Christ”

“In Christ”

“In Christ” [62] is a very important term. “In Christ” (or “in Christ Jesus”) occurs 90 times in the Greek New Testament; “in him”, 44 times (not counting occurrences in the four Gospels so as to adhere more closely to the meaning of “in Christ” as expounded by Apostle Paul, and as found in the other epistles); “in the Lord” (counting occurrences in the New Testament only) 48 times. This amounts to a total of more than 180 times.

Furthermore, there is no doubt that the post-resurrection use of the term “in Christ” is closely related to the “in me” which occurs 24 times in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. This adds up to a grand total of over 200 times. The importance of “in Christ” is therefore statistically evident.

Even so, only a condensed survey can be provided here; a more detailed discussion of the numerous occurrences of the term “in Christ” or “in him” cannot be undertaken within the scope of this discussion.

When, however, we check through the references one by one (as I have done, and encourage the reader to do the same so as to get a clearer and deeper understanding of it), we find that “in Christ” always has to do with life. Here are a few examples from different sections of the New Testament: Romans 6.11, “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus”. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro.6.23); “the promise of life in Christ Jesus” (2Ti.1.1); for “God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son” (1Jo.5.11).

Believers are frequently referred to as people who are “in Christ,” who have new life in Christ, for as the apostle put it, “if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2Cor.5.17). There are many examples of this in Romans 16: “Greet Andronicus and Junias…who were in Christ before me…Greet Urbanus, our fellow-worker in Christ…Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ,” and several more in verses 7 to 13.

Believers don’t cease to be in Christ when they die physically. In First Corinthians they are described as “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” (15.18). Even in death they are still known to be alive, hence they are those who are “asleep” (also Jo.11.13; 1Co.15.51; 1Th.4.13-15). At the Lord’s return, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (1Thess.4.16).

We can summarize the Scriptural evidence as follows: “In Christ” is never used to refer to our spiritual dying with Christ (at baptism) at the beginning of our new life in Christ. “With Christ” is always used in connection with this initial spiritual event. “In Christ” is also used when referring to the physical death of those who are “in Christ,” i.e. who are true followers of Jesus, thus making it clear that death does not remove them from being “in him,” but ensures that they will go on to be “with him” at a new level of spiritual life: eternal life with him “face to face” (1Cor.13.12).

“With Christ”

Virtually all references in the Pauline writings to “with Christ” refer to our union with Christ in his death and our rising to newness of life consequent upon it, which find outward expression at baptism. The following are a few examples: “we have been buried with him through baptism into his death” and “we have died with Christ” (Ro.6.4,8; Col.2.20). “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal.2.19,20). Believers have been “buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with him… He made you alive together with him” (Col.2.12,13; also Eph.2.5).

There are a number of related points associated with death and resurrection:

(1) Suffering. In Scripture suffering is closely linked with death, and indeed can even include death as in the case of Luke 24.46: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day”. Here “suffer” is used instead of “die” bec­ause it is used as a comprehensive term that includes death. This being the case, we can expect to see “with Christ” used in rela­tion to suffering as in Romans 8.17: “if indeed we suffer with him”.

(2) Glorified with Christ at the Resurrection because of suffering with him in the present. Suffering with him is not in vain, for it leads to being glorified with him. As God’s child­ren we are “fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Ro.8.17)

Here to be “glorified with him” refers to a time after the Lord’s return when we enter into our inheritance at the resurrection. This is also seen in Romans 6.8 and Philippians 1.23. Hence “with Christ” is also used when speaking of the glorious things awaiting us when we meet with him “face to face” (1Cor.13.12).

(3) A foretaste of resurrection power in the present. In Christ, death is overcome by his redemptive and triumphant life. So it can be expected that if we are walking with Christ, we already now have at least a foretaste of the glorious future resurrection life. Though this foretaste is never itself described as a “spiritual resurrection” (as distinct from the future physical resurrection), Paul does say that we now “walk in newness of life” (Ro.6.4). This fore­taste of the resurrection is precisely what the apostle expresses by the word suzōopoieō (συζωοποιέω) which means “made alive together with”. The word occurs only twice in the New Testa­ment. The first is in Ephesians 2.5, where our being saved by grace is linked to this important word. The other occurrence is in Colos­sians 2.13. In both cases, the word makes reference to the resurrect­ion of Christ, the power of which we now experience in our new life in Christ.

Examples of “with Christ” as referring to the future Resurrection are 2Cor.13.4, “We shall live with him because of the power of God toward you”; 2 Tim.2.11, “For if we died with him, we shall also live with him”; and 1Thess.5.10, our Lord Jesus “who died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep [metonyms for ‘alive or dead’], we may live together with him.” Whether alive or “asleep” (that is, whether in the present or the future), we always “live together with him”.

Conclusion

We conclude by summarizing as follows: As a general rule, “in Christ” is used specifically of our present living relationship with our risen Lord. But because this relation­ship begins at our dying with him at baptism and continues until we meet him face to face, it applies to every present moment and extends from the past to the future. Even so, its emphasis is always on the present.

On the other hand, “with Christ” is used with reference to

1.      Our death with Christ at baptism,

2.      Our suffering with him and our receiving a foretaste of his resurrection power already now in the present time, and

3.      The time when the Lord will come again for his redeemed ones and “we will be with the Lord forever” (1Thess.4.17, NIV).

Therefore, “with Christ” can apply to past, present, and future. We are both in him and with him. His presence is both in us and with us. There is both union and communion.

 


[60] A computer search failed to find the statement, that we are saved by believing that Jesus died for us, and the many possible variations of it, in RSV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV and NJB. (BC)

[61] Five times in the Greek, but some English translations (e.g. RSV) have an extra occurrence. (BC)

[62] See also Chapter 23 under the section heading, “The Meaning of ‘In Christ’”.

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church