Imitating Jesus

Michael Allen
Friday, February 27th 2009
Mar/Apr 2009

“What would Jesus do?” Though the bracelets were influential, the question is not without controversy. Two key debates deserve mention.

First, Jesus has been many things to many people, and he calls for many things from them. Jesus would free the oppressed or have a quiet time or eat with the marginalized or wash people’s feet or battle on Israel’s behalf or remain celibate or maintain serenity in the midst of pain or model righteous anger in ridding the religious establishment of its presumption or exorcise demons or live a life of poverty or talk at length about the apocalypse and the kingdom to come or die to show that murder simply does not work.

Liberals and conservatives, religious and secular-everyone has use for the morality of Jesus. Christianity Today and the Jesus Seminar each suggest their own use for the Messiah in contemporary moral discussion. Historical and exegetical debate ensues regarding the best texts and the right readings: is Jesus a sage, a liberator, a monastic, or a pietist? Whereas many see Jesus as a political activist today, Thomas Aquinas and much of the medieval tradition interpreted him as a monastic-like figure. Novelist Richard Russo points to the conundrum: “Oh dear me, it is complicated. No surprise that people are always trying to simplify life. What’s that question our evangelical brethren are always asking? ‘What would Jesus do?’ What, indeed?”

Second, many fear that talk of the imitation of Jesus or even of Christian morality, will somehow undermine the gracious nature of the gospel. When Stanley Grenz and certain leaders in the Emergent movement have contrasted the call to faith in Christ with an emphasis on imitating Christ, this fear is understandable. Yet James Gustafson rightly warns us that “the Christian life is not less moral because it is not primarily moral.” While our following Jesus is not the ground for our standing before or adoption by God, it is nonetheless an important aspect of the Christian life. While I would disagree with much of Gustafson’s description of ethics, he is right that the Christian life is moral but “not primarily moral.” In fact, if Christian morality involves trusting dependence on God as its core, then morality only arises when it is not primary. As in the Exodus, freedom is given that the people may then serve or worship YHWH (e.g., Exod. 8:1; 9:1; 10:3). While sanctification and Christian service do not merit anything, they are a crucial aspect of redeemed life.

Much more interesting than these two issues, however, is a logically prior question: is it even possible, much less preferable, to follow this Messiah’s morality? We cannot imitate bolts of lightning, but we can imitate our parents. Is Jesus more like a lightning bolt from heaven or more like our parents? Issues of continuity and discontinuity affect the usefulness of imitating Jesus as a principle for Christian ethics.

I will argue that “What would Jesus do?” is a necessary but not sufficient question for Christian ethics. First, the necessity will be seen by observing that Jesus is really human according to the biblical testimony. He lives an authentic human life and, thus, models ideal human behavior. Second, the insufficiency is shown by noting that Jesus fulfills a unique calling in redemptive history, to which no one else is called. His example must be qualified in several respects. By viewing ethics in light of the Incarnation and the atonement, his continuity and discontinuity with us, then, we can appreciate the importance and the difficulty of imitating Jesus.


“The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The doctrine of the Incarnation can be understood as involving three factors: (1) the Word, (2) flesh, and (3) a becoming or relationship between (1) and (2). Debates about Jesus (the christological controversies) have focused on one or more of these issues. With regard to our question, the second facet is important. If we are going to give any credence to following Jesus, to imitating his lifestyle, then we must ask about the nature of his humanity.

That the Word became “flesh” means that every aspect of human life was assumed by the Word. The Epistle to the Hebrews is particularly emphatic in this regard: “He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). The immediate context illustrates the scope of this statement that Jesus was “like his brothers in every respect.” First, “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin” (2:11). Second, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things” (2:14). Third, “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (2:18).

In the early church, the Apollinarian heresy was deemed spiritually harmful, because it denied that the Son of God assumed full humanity. The Apollinarians suggested that the Word took human flesh as a garment, yet assumed no human intelligence or mind. The Word was clothed in flesh. How would this lead to imitating Jesus? Well, Apollinarians favored the pursuit of faith apart from reason. Just as Jesus really only knew things divinely, so humans ought to pursue knowledge of special revelation to the exclusion of the slow and arduous study of natural phenomena or philosophy. The Christian life involves becoming a bit less human, if the Apollinarian approach is adopted.

The church responded by affirming the maxim “that which is not assumed is not healed.” This principle well summarizes the teaching of Hebrews 2. If Jesus redeemed only human bodies, then the human intellect remains plagued by death and sin. To redeem the whole human person, Jesus must have assumed a complete human nature.

Because Jesus was fully human, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), he can function as a moral exemplar. It is important to note that the biblical teaching of humanity as the “image of God” is heightened with regard to this particular human. In fact, the process of salvation involves being “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Jesus is humanity perfected, transfigured, even glorified. As even his ascended reign is continuous with human existence, we ought to ask what he does and how we might follow.

Because Jesus was really human, perfectly human, he is the climax of the “great cloud of witnesses” described in Hebrews 11 and 12. Indeed, the chapter break sadly skews much interpretation of this text. Hebrews 12 offers the highest heights of human faithfulness: “Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). The term “author” might better be rendered “prototype,” highlighting the exemplary function of Jesus’ faith in the midst of suffering. Jesus is human; his experience is continuous with ours; thus, he can and should be imitated.

Messianic Work

The Christ’s life saves precisely because, while human, he was also human in a very different way. He can help his brothers and sisters because he is also the anointed one, set apart and sanctified by the Spirit for the work of salvation. In other words, several factors qualify our attempt to follow Jesus by imitating his behavior.

First, Jesus does not relate to God as a child redeemed from his own sin, while we must always commune with a Father to whom we have been reconciled. Hebrews is very explicit about his innocence: “It was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people” (7:26-27). He needed no atonement because he was sinless.

Jesus did trust his Father, believing that joy would come on the far side of Calvary (12:2). Yet Jesus did not believe his Father would forgive him his sins. Indeed, such an issue was moot. Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). Jesus’ piety was not shaped by confession or gratitude for forgiveness. Quite to the contrary, the Christian is meant to do all things in the shadow of the cross. Every good gift and every righteous response to God is meant to be a glorying in the cross (Gal. 6:14). Our trust in the Father must be cross-centered in a way that the incarnate Son’s was not and could not be, for we are only adopted children and not children by nature (like Jesus).

Second, Jesus’ faithfulness is maintained by a superabundant blessing by the Holy Spirit, which is greater than any such blessing promised for his followers in this life. Again, Hebrews witnesses to the Spirit-anointed works of the incarnate Son. His identity as Messiah is evident due to the witness of “signs and wonders and various miracles,” all of which can be termed “gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4). Furthermore, his priestly ministry surpasses that of the Old Covenant (chapters 8-10), because his messianic work was “through the eternal Spirit” (9:14). The Spirit perfected Jesus’ humanity during his earthly life, whereas no such gifting is promised to his followers. Unlike the one who was to be a perfect lamb, Christians will be perfected only upon resurrection. Whereas he was transfigured prior to death, our glory comes only on the other side of the tomb.

We do receive the same Spirit that rested upon Christ, and we will do things greater than even the Son (14:12). Thus, we should have a rock-solid confidence that the same Spirit-who ministered to the Messiah in the wilderness and who kept him faithful while suffering hell on the cross-rests upon us. Still, we have no promise that the Spirit will ensure our sinlessness now. We must be realistic by realizing the story arch into which we have been cast. We will not obey as consistently or perfectly as does the Son, because we are not wholly sanctified like him in the here and now.

Third, Jesus’ lifestyle was that of the Messiah, whereas we are to be followers of this pioneer of the faith (Heb. 12:3). The same Epistle to the Hebrews that emphasizes the likeness of Jesus and his followers also heightens the once-for-all nature of his atonement and his ministry. He is the “great high priest” and “after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3). There is a sharp discontinuity between the human life of Jesus and, well, everybody else. This must be honored if we are not to lose the singular sufficiency of the Christ for salvation (solus Christus).

The issue is distinguishing what is repeatable from what is not. Herman Witsius argued that we are to imitate his humanity but not his mediatory work. For example, consider his obedience to the law. Jesus obeyed the law that he might be perfectly suitable as a sin-offering. None of us needs to serve as a sin offering. We might imitate his obedience, however, without the goal of being sin offerings. Whereas he loved persons by dying on their behalf, his followers are to love their neighbors by pointing them to Jesus’ death, not by dying themselves. There are differences in vocational calling to be teased out.

Fourth, Jesus’ obedience was settled within the cultural contexts and constraints of the first century, whereas we live in different times. This difference is the most obvious and, therefore, needs little unpacking. Various actions that he performed would have different social meaning if repeated identically today. Imitating him is necessarily a hermeneutical enterprise because we live in a world without the Roman Empire, Pharisees, and so forth.

Fifth, Jesus’ piety is documented for us in the New Testament, yet the “life of Jesus” that we can glean from these texts does not directly exemplify any number of social issues that we might imitate. For example, we have no idea how Jesus would act within marriage, for we have no evidence that he was married. While he taught certain things related to marriage, he does not act as a moral guide by means of his own behavior in this regard. We could multiply this limit by showing the number of areas that are simply not recorded by the evangelists or that Jesus presumably did not interact with personally. Whatever he did, we know he did perfectly; but we are not told what this looks like or what it involves.

Karl Barth said that “in all these things He goes before us once for all; not in His humanity as such, for in this respect He makes us like unto Himself; but in the way in which He is a man, that is, in virtue of His unique relation to God.” Jesus is uniquely human; his experience is discontinuous with ours; thus, he cannot and should not be imitated directly and without qualification.

Ethical Triangulation: Putting Jesus into Canonical Context

How might we move forward? I suggest that a key principle will be the practice of “ethical triangulation,” where we imitate Jesus well by imitating those who have followed him (especially the disciples and apostles of the New Testament). Our whole task is trying to locate godly behavior on the moral map. Just as a cellular signal can be located by viewing it relative to a number of towers, so the path of obedience can be discerned by viewing the life of Jesus as one of several examples given to us in the Bible.

We should read the stories of Jesus as happening in our own moral world; but, as Robert Sherman says:

If we see ourselves in such a narrative, we should not be too quick to identify ourselves with the character of Christ, seeking to imitate him in some univocal fashion. Rather, we should identify ourselves with the disciples, recognizing how the conditions and obligations of their lives have been changed because of what Christ has accomplished for them, and because of the Spirit’s continuing power and guidance.

Sherman’s words are to be heeded, precisely because they echo the emphasis of the New Testament. The apostle Paul called on his readers to imitate him (Phil. 2:19-30; 3:16; 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1; Gal. 4:12; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14; 2 Thess. 3:7, 9). The writer to the Hebrews offers a number of examples for the congregation’s consideration: “Those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (6:11), “your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God” (13:7), and, most importantly, “those who have faith and preserve their souls” (10:39). This last group includes the saints from Abel to Jesus, and their obedience is described in multiple ways. They are to be imitated as those whose belief impelled radical obedience (11:6).

How will our Christian life relate to the life of Christ? We will look to his life story as a source for Christian ethics, but we will view his obedience within the canonical context provided by the saints. They are not sinless, evident by the many names in Hebrews 11 that are linked to certain scandals in the Bible (e.g., compare Abraham in Heb. 11:8-12 and 17-19 with Gen. 12:10-20 and 20:1-18). Still, the Bible points us to the righteous behavior of these imperfect images of Christ. As we reflect on their search for faithful ways to honor God, we will have our eyes opened to the way this would look in our own callings and contexts. They serve as final authorities for Christian practice, not because of their own merit but because God has employed them in this biblical capacity.

We should follow and even imitate Jesus, the true and perfect human. Yet we must never allow this emphasis to become a principle of identical repetition, for we are not like him in every respect. Noting key differences and adjusting our moral standards accordingly will be aided by looking also to the example of saints in the pages of the Bible. In so doing, we look to Jesus within canonical and covenantal context.

1 [ Back ] Respectively, F. Scott Spencer, What Did Jesus Do? Gospel Profiles of Jesus' Personal Conduct (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), and Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 3a.40.
2 [ Back ] Richard Russo, Empire Falls (New York: Vintage, 2002), 172.
3 [ Back ] See, e.g., Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the Twenty-First Century (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 17, 31, 48-52.
4 [ Back ] James Gustafson, Christ and the Moral Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 183.
5 [ Back ] Sadly, most translations insert the word "our" into the phrase "author and perfector of faith," suggesting that Jesus did not exemplify faith himself. "Our" does not appear in the original text, nor is it necessary to make sense of the verse. Jesus really believed in the Father's promise in the midst of trials; therefore, he exemplifies a trust and dependence that we are to imitate. See my The Christ's Faith: A Dogmatic Account (T & T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology; London: T & T Clark, 2009), esp. ch. 6.
6 [ Back ] On translating archegon, see N. Clayton Croy, "A Note on Hebrews 12:2," Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 1 (1995), 117-19.
7 [ Back ] Herman Witsius, The Economy of Covenants between God and Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1990), vol. 2, 34.
8 [ Back ] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. III/2: The Doctrine of Creation, eds. Geoffrey W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1960), 49.
9 [ Back ] Robert Sherman, King, Priest, and Prophet: A Trinitarian Theology of the Atonement (Theology for the Twenty-First Century; London: T & T Clark, 2004), 212.
Friday, February 27th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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