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19. Being Perfect: Imitating God

– Chapter 19 –

Being Perfect: Imitating God

The world knows the necessity of perfection

Someone 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 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 innova­tion, as well as in commit­ment to their company. So everyone was given a pep talk on the importance of excellence and perfection, and then given a cap. The idea was to remind every employee to strive for quality every time he or she sees “Strive for Perfection” on a cap.

Even a secular company knows that perfection is vital for survival, and that it cannot survive in this competitive world without it. 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 the explan­ation for this 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” (Luke 16:8)?

Satisfied with mediocrity?

Since Christians are God’s workman­ship, would God be satis­fied with imperfect work? Deuteronomy 32:4 says that God’s “work is perfect,” but I wonder if a non-Christ­ian who looks at a Christian might be disap­pointed by God’s “workmanship” in this Christian?

Paul does say explicitly that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph.2:10). Do we dishonor God by living a life that causes people to say, “Is this God’s workman­ship? The Japanese can make a better TV than God makes a Christian. Where is the evidence of a new life quality in this Christian?”

If the world sees the impor­tance of perfect­ion for sur­vival, why can’t Christ­ians? Most Christians think that perfection is a luxury, a non-essent­ial, an extracurri­cular act­ivity for people who have ample time on their hands. All we want is salvation; who wants to talk about perfection? If that is your way of thinking, then you still do not realize that perfection is required of you.

Perfection and salvation are rooted in the “obedience of faith”

Many Christians do not aspire to spiritual excell­ence which they con­sider unnecessary or too costly. Yet the Bible affirms that perfection is an integral part of salvation. If we hope for a place among the saved, then perfection must also be an integral part of our lives. The statement “you are to be perfect” (Mt.5:48) is in the imperative mood, indicating a command. Hence it has to do with sal­vation, for obedience to God is essential for salvation.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only sy­stematic expos­ition on salvation in the New Testament. Significantly, Romans has the phrase “the obedience of faith” at its begin­ning and its conclusion (Romans 1:5; 16:26). Faith is not saving faith unless there is obedience. To address God as Lord and yet refuse to obey Him is to make a mockery of professed faith.

In the previous chapter, we saw that in Scripture, perfection as it concerns us in the present time is primarily an attitude of the heart (the second type of perfection mentioned in Philippians 3). That is precisely what the obed­ience of faith is. Romans 6:17 says “you became obedient from the heart” to God’s word, so you were set free from sin and became slaves of righteousness (v.18). Let us look at the whole passage and note the repeated occurrence of the words obedience or obey, and slave:

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. (Romans 6:16-18)

This passage shows that obedience is the basic character of the spiritual life because the hard reality is that everyone in this world, with­out exception, is a slave to something. But the good news is that God has given us the freedom to choose whose slave we will be; slaves don’t normally have such a choice. We can choose to be enslaved to sin or to righteousness in Christ, to obey the one or the other. Paul also puts this as a choice between life and death. If we acknowledge Christ as Lord and we as his slaves, we would gladly obey his commands, not least because he loved us and gave himself for us to deliver us from sin.

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 is rather a con­forming of our hearts to God’s heart, such that God becomes the model and the pattern of the way we live, think and feel.

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 that this instruction is given to God’s “beloved children,” those who are “born of God” (1Jn.3:9). Hence the call to imitate God is issued to all who are born anew, who are regenerate, and who have God as Father. In what specific ways can we imitate God?

(1) Giving what is most precious to us. We are motivated to do this because of a most selfless act of God: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (Jn.3:16). To imitate God means to love as He loved, for He loved us at the cost of what is most precious to Him.

(2) Loving those who do not love us. In imitating God, we need to see that His amazing love seen in giving us His Son, was a love poured out not just for those who love Him but for “the whole world” (1Jn.2:2). It is a world that does not acknowledge Him, and is at enmity with Him. Yet God gives rain and sunshine to the evil and the good alike (Mt.5:45), and even gives them His “one and only Son”!

(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 sets before us the scope and standard of what we are called to imitate and to reproduce in our lives. His Holy Spirit (pneuma, which also means “breath”) will sustain and strengthen us as we follow Him.

(2) Imitating Him means following Him, and vice versa

Paul speaks of imitating God, imitating Paul himself, and imitating the churches. Why speak of imitat­ing in so many 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” (1Th.2:14). We imitate those churches in which God’s life is effectively mani­fested.

The New Testament brings out this principle in yet another way: Jesus says, “I am the way” (John 14:6). That is why Acts describes the church or the Christian community as those “belonging to the Way” (9:2). Likewise the gospel is called “the Way” (19:9,23; 24:14,22). The churches or the people who are faithful to God’s word embody “the Way” in their lives and become worthy models for others to emulate.

Disciples are followers of the Way. What do we do on a highway? Do we simply believe in the road, whatever that means? We must walk in the way, and follow it. Did we arrive at the church service by sitting on our beds and believing there is a road that leads to the church building? 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, he found himself in Montreal!

We see the absurdity of this scenario. We are percept­ive in world­ly things but dull in spiritual things. A person may be smart at his research lab, reeling off chemical formulas or mathematical equations, yet is dull in spiritual matters.

When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” is he saying that we close our eyes and believe in the Way in a simple faith, and suddenly arrive at the Father? What do we do with the Way? We follow it if we hope to arrive at its destination. When the road turns left, we turn left. When it turns right, we turn right.

Jesus as 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. It means that our lives conform to his. Jesus is the model, the pattern, the template, according to which the Holy Spirit daily fashions us, that we will finally be fully con­formed to his image (Romans 8:29).

(3) Saved by merely believing that Jesus died for us?

Is it possible to be saved without fol­lowing “the Way” of salvation? Is Jesus not that Way? 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 Scripture, I searched through all my con­cordances for such a statement or some­thing similar. I searched through every available list to ensure that I had not missed anything, yet nothing of this kind could be found! A computer search failed to find the statement that we are saved by believing that Jesus died for us, in RSV, NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV and NJB.

“You are saved by believing that Jesus died for you,” is a Christian cliché which we hear so often that we don’t bot­her to question it. 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 turned up no such statement, to our great surprise.

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. So we combine the three separate statements into one 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 a historic event. The ultimate object of our faith is the Father (John 12:44).

Thirdly, the combination of the three elements produces an invalid result. To use an analogy, we can say that a human being has a head, two arms, and two legs. So far so good. But we cannot combine the three state­ments and conclude that man is composed of only a head, two arms, and two legs, but lacks a torso. The individual premises are correct, but the conclusion drawn from com­bining them is false, even ludicrous.

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 it is presented 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. Unless his death takes effect in me, it cannot be effective for me. It is not just an external transaction but an inner transformation.

Romans 10:9

It is simply not true to Scripture to maintain that all that is needed for salvation is believing in Jesus’ death for us. Paul says, “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” (Rom.10:9). There are other important things necessary for salvation: (1) public confession of Jesus’ lord­ship, (2) believe in your heart, (3) believe in the resurrection of Jesus that was done by God’s power. To omit all these is no less disastrous for faith than truncating a person by omitting the torso.

Philippians 2:12,13

It is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ’s death and resurrect­ion a reality in us through our union with Christ. Note the important words “with Christ,” which won’t mean much to us unless we iden­tify with him and follow him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Philippians 2:13 says: “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”. We “work out” what God “works in” us by our union with Christ. In the process of salvation, the out-working must proceed from His in-working.

What does this in-working mean in practice? Does it not mean that the Spirit is transforming our “inner man” into Christ’s likeness? What does the out-working mean but that we conform our thoughts and deeds to his likeness?

(4) Identifying with Christ

The word “identify” is important. Oxford Concise Dictionary de­fines it as “to associate oneself inseparably with a party, policy, person”. In the context of Christ, it means to associate oneself insep­arably with Christ.

John explains identification with Christ in these memorable words, “As he is, so are we in this world” (1Jn.4:17). This state­ment is signifi­cant because the whole verse speaks of perfect love and the Day of Judgment: “By this is love 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 linked here: perfection (of love), salvation (confidence at the final judgment), and identification (with Christ).

How do I learn to become perfect? By consulting Encyclopedia Britannica under “perfect”? Of course not. I must associate myself with Christ inseparably, 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 term “imitate” whereas Peter uses the expression “follow in his steps” (1Pet.2:21). Where the Lord Jesus takes a step, there we take a step; when he takes another step, we follow him in that step too. We are inseparably associated with him in every­thing he does, becoming like him under the leading of the 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 with his fastball. It was so fast that before you had a chance to swing the bat, the ball would whiz by and end with a loud clap in the catcher’s glove. 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 to earn 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!

If you think these professionals are incompetent athletes despite 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 five 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 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 book on baseball techniques? No, I began to study this pitcher’s every move 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. Finally, after a year of perseverance, 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 imitated this pitcher to per­fection.

(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, for 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 Jesus’ 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 you will thus be my disciple.” To fol­low him is to imitate him in every­thing, 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 the imitation of Christ is basic to discipleship.

“Christian” is simply a name for a disciple of Christ: “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). “Christian” oc­curs only 3 times in the New Testament, whereas “disciple” (μαθητής, mathētēs) occurs 261 times.

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 the “old man” or ego, allowing us to follow Christ in the newness of life. The cross is God’s means of fash­ioning us into Christ’s image.

(7) Evading the cost of following him

The one who follows Jesus is a disciple. If we “believe” but not follow, we are not his disciples. Only when our believ­ing is of the 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?” 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. (Philippians 2:6-8, ESV)

Looking at these words, can we not know what it means for us to take up our cross? Perhaps we evade it because the cost of disciple­ship is too high for us. It costs us nothing to believe, but it costs us every­thing to imitate him.

Here we see two fundamentally different posi­tions: a faith that costs nothing (and which has no life and bears no spiritual fruit) versus the imitation of Christ in the Script­ural sense of follow­ing him. This is the mark of true disciples: “These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (Rev.14:4). Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (Jn.10:27). How can a sheep survive without its shepherd? If 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 what is the cost of not following him? It is a question of surviving versus perishing, life versus death.

Some evade Jesus’ call because they fear it will cost them every­thing in this earthly life. They are blind to the fact that in clinging to their earthly values, they forfeit eternal values and eternal life. “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Mk.8:36; Lk.9:25).

There are those who insist that they can gain the world and save their souls, that they can serve God and Mam­mon. They think they understand spirit­ual things better than Jesus himself. So they opt for a salvation of easy-believism or what Dietrich Bon­hoeffer (who died for his faith in a Nazi prison) rightly called “cheap grace”. But cheap grace will not save anyone, for true grace is never cheap.

(8) “With” Christ at baptism

To follow Jesus is to be united with him. This takes place at the begin­ning of the Christian life, 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. (Romans 6:4-8)

Here “with” occurs five times in relation to Christ in the original Greek text (though some English translations such as RSV have a sixth occur­rence). In each case, the Greek word used is syn (σύν, “together with”). This word often appears as a prefix to another word, in Greek and English. For ex­ample, the English word sym­phony, derived from syn and phōnē (φωνή, sound), gives a picture of people playing music together and producing a 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? If we are not following him, it would indicate a serious problem in our union with him. But if we are united with him, how can we not conform our lives to his?

(9) Imitating God is the way to knowing Him

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 (Romans 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 until you experience it. 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 only 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?

Why was the Lord so real to Paul? Because they met on the Damascus road in an encounter that changed Paul’s life. When we too experience the Lord, even if in a different way, he will be real to us too. It can be affirmed on the basis of Scripture and experience that no one who has died with Christ will fail to know him in increasing measure.

What are the steps of knowing Christ experientially?

(1) Die with Christ so as to enter into new life

From the passage we just quoted from Romans, we know exper­ient­ially that “our old self was crucified with him” (Romans 6:6). To die with Christ involves imitating him: he dies and we follow him; we “imitate” him by dying with him. This is the vital first step towards knowing him experientially.

The link between imitating Christ and experiencing him should now be obvious. It is equivalently the link between “imitating Christ” and “being with Christ”. Is this true in our experience? Has our old self been crucified with Christ? Paul says that “our old self was crucified with him so that … we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” We can know experientially, not just theoretically, whether we are slaves or not. If we are still slaves of sin, we would know from daily experience that we cannot 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?

Many profess to having been Christians for a long time, yet have never experienced the reality of the new life in Christ. They are still enslaved to sin, to the self, to worldliness, and finally realize that they are unregenerate. How many years must pass before you discover that you are not born of God?

But do they believe that Jesus died for them? Yes they do. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their belief. Why then are they unregenerate? Be­loved, it is because they have never died with him. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross won’t mean much to us until we die with him.

“We have died with Christ” (v.8) refers specifically to 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 that we are united with Christ in his death, we don’t mean that we die his very death (this we can never do), 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.” This is God’s work in us, not something we ourselves could have done (cf., the passive in “our old man was crucified with him,” v.6).

Although we cannot die Christ’s death, we can die “in the like­ness of his death”. Just as he died to sin (v.10), so we die to sin. We share in the likeness of his death to sin. Sin is every form of disobedience to God. It is firmly lodged in our flesh (Romans 7:17,18); hence to finish with sin I finish with the flesh and with everything that is carnal within me. From now on I live under the leading, control and empowering of the Spirit.

The counterpart to “the likeness of his death” is “the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom.6:5). His resurrection is what makes the new life not just a possibility for us, but a reality. Dying with him is not an end in itself but the doorway to the new life in Christ, in which we live to God (Rom.6:10).

(2) Buried with Christ so as to rise to a new kind of life

Secondly, “we have been buried with him” (Rom.6:4; Col.2:12). The term “buried with” translates one Greek word, synthaptō (συνθάπτω). Imag­ine a hole in the ground which you step into to be buried. To be buried with Christ is to finish with the world, such that the world is 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 that this is get­ting scary. Your fear is 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. Are we prepared to take up our cross for his sake?

The rich young ruler asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” How would we have answered him? We would have said, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved”. This answer would be correct if by “believe” we mean the same as what Paul meant by it: “the obedience of faith”.

How does Jesus answer the young ruler’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. Jesus first says, “You know the command­ments” (Mk.10:19). The man re­plies, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.” Jesus then 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 would be just an exter­nal act without spiritual value. 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 it to forsake the chance to inherit eternal life in order to cling to earthly wealth for the few remaining decades of his earthly life? This 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 it slip from his grasp, turning his back on a priceless trea­sure for the sake of fading transient possess­ions. At the final judgment he will have ample occasion to bemoan his unspeakable foolishness. But if we lack the obedience of faith, 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 to die with Christ or not. If we die with Christ, our lives won’t be the same anymore. Our relationship to the world will change beyond recognition.

(3) Crucified with Christ: freedom from slavery to sin

“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” (Rom. 6:6). Contra Paul’s affirmation, Christians promote the idea that our old self was crucified in Christ, not with Christ. They take the liberty to make a subtle but fundamental change. What is the difference? “In Christ” indicates that something was done in him for us, which leaves dying with him redundant. Even if the latter is not stated explicitly, the emphasis on “in” to the exclusion of “with” implies that “dying with him” is treated as redundant. It means that it is not we who die, but that we die in Christ our representative. Our representative died for us, so we die in him.

This is not entirely false because Jesus is our represent­ative (2Cor. 5:14). But it is false if “in” is made to exclude “with”. The New Testament nowhere says that we “died in Christ” in reference to dy­ing to the old life under sin; it is always died or crucified “with Christ”. “In Christ” always refers to the new life in Christ, brought to full complet­ion at the resurrection (1Cor.15:22).

According to the “died in Christ” interpretation or 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.

There is truth in the statement that Jesus is our representative, not least in his role as Mediator (1Tim.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” which brings out our living relation­ship with him in our un­ion with him. But “in Christ” is never used of our initial death with him on the spiritual level when we were crucified with him at baptism. When speaking of that death, the consistent term is “with Christ”. When speak­ing of the new life, the consistent term is “in Christ”. It is erroneous to speak of having “died in Christ” to imply that we don’t really die except in some vague sense in our Represent­ative. (For a study of “with Christ” and “in Christ,” see the Appended Note at the end of this chapter.)

(4) Live in Christ and 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” (Romans 6:4). Many Christians don’t know what it is to live in the resur­rection power of Christ because they haven’t died with him. Nothing has changed on the spiritual level; they think like a non-Christian, and indulge in sinful thoughts in the secrecy of their hearts even while bearing the name “Christian” and speaking pious things at church.

The Christian who lives in Christ will follow him, imitating his holiness, his merciful­ness, his wisdom, his single-minded focus on his mission, and 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. “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb.13:13). 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 or 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, changing our aspirations for ourselves and our loved ones.

The command to be perfect is a call to be like Christ, to follow in his steps, to take up our cross and follow him daily (Lk.9:23). Day by day the cross will transform our thinking, as we are being made con­formable to his death (Phil.3:10) and even his thinking. “We take every thought cap­tive to make it obedient to Christ” (2Cor.10:5). We apply this to every decision in life, seeking to do his perfect will.

(5) Imitate Christ and end self-centeredness

What is our way of thinking? Are we self-centered, being ever con­scious of ourselves and our needs? If we have not died with Christ, we will be 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) in order to imitate him and his life pattern.

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, we are still unregenerate. But if we focus on God, remarkable things will happen in our lives. It can even remove nervous tension! Many are tense because they are conscious about themselves all the time. But when we forget about ourselves and focus on Jesus, amazing things will happen. We will exper­ience God’s work in us, and then through us to others. Our life will radiate upward and outward. We will start to think of the needs of others and of the church.

Of course we must weigh our priorities. Some people 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 above the interests of one person. 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, 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: “I am tired but I turn my heart and mind to you. As you lived and died for others, so by your grace I will forget about my fatigue, and do what needs to be done”. The tiredness won’t drag us down because we will experience the Lord strengthen­ing us. Wonder­ful things happen when Jesus Christ is our model.

There is another point about copying something. In our primary school days, we would be asked to draw a picture of something. We would focus on the object, adding a line here and there, and erasing a line here and there, to conform to the object being copied. This is precisely what takes place when we copy Jesus’ life and character into our own lives. Our thinking is focused on him when we are being changed into his image by God’s power.


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

“In Christ”

The important term “in Christ” (or “in Christ Jesus”) occurs 90 times in the Greek New Testament. The equivalent term “in him” (refer­ring to Christ) occurs 44 times, not counting occurrences in the four Gospels (to adhere more closely to the meaning of “in Christ” in Paul’s letters and the other letters); “in the Lord” occurs 48 times in the New Testament. This comes to a total of more than 180 times.

The post-resurrection use of “in Christ” is closely related to “in me” in Jesus’ sayings in the gospel of John, where “in me” occurs 24 times. This comes to a grand total of over 200 times. The importance of “in Christ” is statistically evident. Even so, only a brief survey of “in Christ” can be provided in this Appended Note.

If we check through the references one by one (as I have done, and encourage the reader to do the same to get a 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 NT: “consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom.6:11); “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom.6:23); “the promise of life in Christ Jesus” (2Tim.1:1); for “God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son” (1Jn.5:11).

Believers are “in Christ” and have the new life in Christ, as Paul puts 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. They are described as “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” (1Cor.15:18). Hence even in death they are alive in Christ, though “asleep” (also Jn. 11:13; 1Cor.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) that takes place at the start of our new life in Christ. In this initial event, the term “with Christ” would be used instead.

“In Christ” is also used when referring to the physi­cal death of those who are “in Christ” (the true followers of Jesus), hence 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, namely, 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, 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” (Rom.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; 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 include death as in 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. Hence we can expect to see “with Christ” in rela­tion to suffering as in Romans 8:17: “if indeed we suffer with him”.

(2) Glorified with Christ at the resurrection on account of suffering with him in the present. Suffering with him is not something that we endure 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” (Rom.8:17). Here “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 Rom. 6:8 and Phil.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. If we are walking with Christ, we would already have a foretaste of the glorious future resurrection life. Though this foretaste is never itself described as a spiritual resurrection, Paul does say that we now “walk in newness of life” (Rom.6:4). This fore­taste of the resurrection is what Paul expresses by the word suzōo­poieō (συζωοποιέω) which means “made alive together with”. This word occurs only twice in the New Testament: In Ephes­ians 2:5 in reference to our being saved by grace, and in Colos­sians 2:13. In both cases, the word refers to the resurrect­ion of Christ, the power of which we now experience in our new life in Christ.

Examples of “with Christ” in reference to the future resurrection are: 2Cor.13:4, “We shall live with him because of the power of God toward you”; 2Tim.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 [metonym for ‘alive or dead’], we may live together with him.

Summary and conclusion

As a general rule, “in Christ” is used of our present living relationship with our risen Lord. But because this living 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, in the present time, a foretaste of his resurrection power

3.      The time when the Lord will come again for his redeemed ones and “we will be with the Lord forever” (1Thess.4:17).

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.

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