Christ Our Exemplar
by Arthur W. Pink
A Pattern of Holiness
Two serious mistakes have been made by men in taking or not taking Christ for their example and it is difficult to determine which is the more evil and fatal of the two. First, there have been those who held up the perfect life of the Lord Jesus before the unconverted and maintained that they must imitate the same in order to find acceptance with God. In other words, they made the emulating of Christ “the way of salvation” unto lost sinners. This is a fundamental error which cannot be resisted too strenuously. It repudiates the total depravity and spiritual helplessness of fallen men. It denies the imperative necessity for the new birth. It nullifies the Atonement by emphasizing Christ’s flawless life at the expense of His sacrificial death. It substitutes works for faith, creature efforts for Divine grace, man’s faulty doings for the Redeemer’s finished work. If the Acts and Epistles are searched it will be found that the Apostles never preached the imitating of Christ as the way to obtain forgiveness of sins and secure peace with God.
But in recent generations the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. If a century ago the example which Christ has left His people was made too much of, our moderns make far too little of it. If they gave it a place when preaching to the unsaved, which Scripture does not warrant, we have sadly failed to press it upon Christians to the extent that Scripture requires. If they are to be blamed for misusing the example of Christ in connection with justification, we are guilty of failing to use it in connection with sanctification. While it is true that the moral perfections which Christ so illustriously displayed during His earthly sojourn are still extolled in many places, yet how rarely one now hears (or reads) of those who insist that the emulating of Christ is absolutely essential for the believer’s preservation and ultimate salvation: yea, would not the great majority of “orthodox” preachers be positively afraid to make any such assertion lest they be charged with “legality”?
The Lord Jesus Christ is not only a perfect and glorious Pattern of all graces, holiness, virtue and obedience, to be preferred above all others—but He alone is such. In the lives of the best of the saints Scripture records that which it is our bounden duty to avoid, as well as that which we ought to follow, so that sometimes one is puzzled to know whether it is safe to conform unto them or not. But God has graciously supplied us with a sure rule which effectually solves that problem and if heeded by us we shall never be at a loss to perceive our duty. The holy men and women of Scripture are to be imitated by us only as far as they were themselves conformed unto Christ: see 1 Corinthians 11:1. The best of their graces, the highest of their attainments, the most perfect of their duties were spoiled by spots and blemishes—but in Christ is no imperfection whatever, for He had no sin and did no sin.
Christ is not only the perfect but also the pattern Man and therefore is His example suitable for all believers. This remarkable fact presents a feature which has not received the attention it deserves. There is nothing so distinctive in personality as racial and national characteristics. The greatest of men bear unmistakable marks of their heredity and environment. Racial peculiarities are imperishable: to the last fiber of his being Luther was German, Knox a Scot; with all his largeness of heart Paul was a Jew. Now in sharp and blessed contrast, Jesus Christ rose above heredity and environment—nothing local, transient, national, or sectarian dwarfed His wondrous personality. Christ is the only truly catholic man. He belongs to all ages and is related to all men, because He is “the Son of man.” This it is which underlies the universal suitability of Christ’s example to believers of all nations, who one and all may find in Him the perfect realization of their ideal.
This is indeed a miracle and exhibits a transcendent perfection in the Man Christ Jesus which is rarely pondered. How remarkable it is that the converted Englishman may find in Christ’s character and conduct a pattern as well suited to him as to a saved Chinaman! His example is as appropriate for the regenerated Zulu as it is for a born-again German. The needs of Lord Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton were as truly met in Christ as were those of the half-witted youth who said, “I am a poor sinner and nothing at all. But Jesus Christ is my all in all.” How remarkable that the example of Christ is as appropriate for believers of the twentieth century as it was for those of the first, that it is as suitable for a Christian child as for his grandparent! There is nothing effeminate about Christ, yet Christian women can take Him for their example as well as may Christian men. Christ rises above all human limitations: He is perfect Man, and therefore is His example perfectly suited to all believers.
He is appointed of God for this very purpose. One end why God sent His Son to become flesh and tabernacle in the world therein was that He might set before us an example in our own nature. In Christ is One who was like unto us in all things, sin alone excepted, thereby exhibiting to us of that renewal to His image in us, of that return unto Him from sin and apostasy and of that holy obedience which He requires of us. Such an example was needful that we might never be at a loss about the will of God in His commandments, having a glorious representation of it before our eyes and that could be given us no otherwise than in our own nature. The angelic nature was not suited to set us an example of obedience, especially as to the exercise of such graces as we specially stand in need of in this world. What example could angels set us in themselves of patience in afflictions or quietness in sufferings when their nature is incapable of such things? Nor could we have had a complete and perfect example in our nature except in One who was holy and “separate from sinners.”
Many are the Scriptures which present Christ as the believer’s Exemplar, the principal of which are the following, “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me: for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29)—Learn by the course of My life as well as by the word of My mouth. “When He putteth forth His own sheep, He goeth before them, and the sheep follow Him” (John 10:4)—He requires no more of us than He rendered Himself. “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). “Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:5). “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5). “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1, 2). “But if, when you do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:20, 21). “He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Example is better than precept. Why? Because a precept is more or less an abstraction, whereas an example sets before us a concrete presentation and therefore has more aptitude to incite the mind unto imitation. The conduct of those with whom we are in close association exerts a considerable influence upon us, either for good or evil. That fact is clearly recognized in the Scriptures. For example, we are enjoined, “Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shalt not go: lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul” (Prov. 22:24, 25). It was for this reason (among others) that God commanded the Israelites to utterly destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan, so that they might not learn their evil ways and be contaminated by them (Deut. 7:2-4). Contrariwise, the example of the pious exerts an influence for good: that is why they are called “the salt of the earth.”
Now it is in keeping with this principle that God has appointed the consideration of Christ’s character and conduct as a special means for the increase of piety in His people, so that as their hearts contemplate His holy obedience, it has a peculiar efficacy unto their growing in grace beyond all other examples. It is in the beholding of the Lord Jesus by faith that salvation comes to us: “Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth” (Isa. 45:22). Christ is presented before the sinner in the Gospel with the promise that whosoever believingly looks unto Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:14, 15). This is a special ordinance of God and it is made effectual by the Spirit unto all who believe. In like manner, Christ is presented unto the saints as the grand Pattern of obedience and Example of holiness with the promise that as they contemplate Him as such they shall be changed into His image: 2 Corinthians 3:18. Our response to that appointment of God is rewarded by a growing in piety.
But to get down to details: what is involved and comprised in the saints’ imitating of Christ? First, it necessarily presupposes that they be already regenerate. The hearts of His followers must be sanctified before their lives can be conformed to Him. The spirit and principle of obedience must be imparted to the soul before there can be an external imitation of Christ’s practice. This order is plainly enunciated in, “I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: that they may walk in My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 11:19, 20). One who is yet in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity has not heart for spiritual things: therefore the tree must be made good ere it can produce good fruit. We must first live in the Spirit and then walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). One might as well urge the Ethiopian to change his skin or the leopard his spots as call upon the unconverted to follow the example which Christ has left His people.
Second, the imitating of Christ definitely denotes that no Christian may govern himself or act according to his own will and pleasure. Those who are a rule unto themselves act in fearful defiance of the Most High: “O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (Jer. 10:23). A man may as well feign to be his own creator as his own guide. No man has wisdom enough to direct himself. When born again we are made conscious of this fact: our proud hearts are then humbled and our rebellious wills broken and we feel the need of being led by Another. The cry of a converted heart is, “Lord, what wouldest Thou have be to do?” and His answer to us today is, Follow the example which I have left you: learn of Me; walk even as I walked.
Third, if this imitating of Christ clearly implies that no man may pretend to be his own master, it is equally evident that no matter how wise or how holy he is, no Christian has the right nor is qualified to rule others—Christ alone is appointed and fitted to be the Lord of His people. It is true that we read in the Word, “That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Heb. 6:12) and “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account” (Heb. 13:17), yet that must be taken in subordination to the example of Christ. The best of men are but men at the best: they have their errors and their faults and wherein they differ from Christ it is our duty to differ from them.
It is very important that we should be quite clear upon this point, for much mischief has resulted from allowing some to deprive others of a vital part of their rightful liberty. It is not that Scripture teaches an ecclesiastical democracy—that is as far from the Truth as the papist hierarchy at the opposite extreme. God has placed rulers in the Church and its members are commanded to obey the same; but their rule is administrative and not legislative—to enforce the laws of Christ and not invent rules of their own. Paul affirmed, “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand” (2 Cor. 1:24), and Peter declared of the elders or bishops, “Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Filled with so great a measure of the Spirit of wisdom and holiness as the Apostle Paul was, yet he goes no higher than this: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Fourth, the imitation of Christ plainly intimates that true Christianity is very strict and exacting and in nowise countenances licentiousness or the indulgence of fleshly lusts. This needs emphasizing in such a day as ours, when so much looseness and laxity prevail on every hand. People suppose they may be followers of Christ and yet ignore the path which He traversed—that they may decline the unpleasant task of denying self and yet make sure of Heaven. What a delusion! The vital necessity of the careful imitation of Christ utterly disallows all loose walking and rejects the claim of any to being real Christians if they heed not His holy example. Neither worldliness nor self-indulgence can find any protection beneath the wings of the Gospel. The unvarying rule which is binding upon all who claim to be His is, “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2:19)—let him either follow the example of Christ, or cease claiming to belong to Him; let him tread the highway of holiness or all his fair words are worthless.
Fifth, the imitation of Christ necessarily implies the blemishes of the best of men. If the life of Christ is our pattern then the holiest among His followers are obliged to own that they come far short of this standard of duty and that, not in a few details, but in every respect. The character and conduct of the Lord Jesus were without spot or blemish and therefore are so high above our poor attainments that we are filled with shame when we measure ourselves thereby. Self-satisfied religionists may take delight in comparing themselves with others, as the Pharisee did with the Publican. And deluded souls who suppose that all Christian holiness consists of is measuring up to some humanly-invented standard of perfection (or entering into some peculiar experience), may pride themselves that they have “received the second blessing” or “have the fullness or baptism of the Spirit”—yet all who honestly measure themselves by the perfections of Christ will find abundant cause to be humbled.
This, too, is a point of tremendous practical importance. If I place my handkerchief against a dark background it will appear spotlessly clean but if I lay it upon some newlyfallen snow the imperfection of its whiteness is quickly apparent. So if I compare my own experiences and life with that of certain “holiness” preachers or “victorious-life” advocates I may rightly conclude that I compare favourably with them—but if I sincerely and diligently apply to myself the line and plummet of Christ’s example then I must at once acknowledge that, like Peter of old, I am but following Him “afar off.” Surely none was more proficient in holiness and punctilious in obedience than the Apostle Paul, yet, when he compared himself with Christ, he declared, “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend” (Phil. 3:12).
Sixth, the imitation of Christ as our rule and pattern clearly implies His transcendent holiness—that His holiness is high above that of all creatures. Therefore it is the greatest of the Christian’s ambitions to be made conformed unto His image (Phil. 3:10). Now Christ has a double perfection: a perfection of being and a perfection of working. His life here upon earth supplies a perfect rule for us because there was no blot or error therein for He was “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” and such an High Priest became us (Heb. 7:26). Thus the conformity of professing Christians unto Christ’s example is both the test and measure of all their graces: the nearer anyone approaches to this Pattern, the closer he comes unto perfection.
Finally, the Christian’s imitation of Christ, under the penalty of forfeiting his claim to any saving interest in Christ, necessarily denotes that sanctification and obedience are the evidences of our justification and acceptance with God. Scriptural assurance is unattainable without sincere and strict obedience. “The work of righteousness (not of loose living) shall be peace” (Isa. 32:17): “we have it not for our holiness, but we always have it in the way of holiness. Let men talk what they will of the immediate sealings and comforts of the Spirit without any regard to holiness, or respect to obedience: sure I am, whatever delusion they meet with in that way, true peace and consolation is only to be found and expected here” (John Flavell, to whom we are indebted for quite a little in the above seven points).
In What Are We to Imitate Him?
“Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21). We have seen that not only is the perfect life of Christ a suitable pattern of holiness for His people to imitate but that God has expressly appointed it for that very purpose. This in order that we may have a sure rule to walk by—the Law of God translated into concrete terms and its requirements set before us by a personal representation and also for the purpose of humbling our proud hearts—by revealing to us how far short we come of measuring up to God’s standard of righteousness. Furthermore, God has appointed that the example of Christ should be followed by His people in order that His Son might be honoured by them, in order to distinguish His followers from the world and in order that they should evidence the reality of their profession. The imitating of Christ, then, is not optional, but obligatory.
But at this point a very real difficulty confronts those who are sincerely seeking grace to heed this Divine appointment: in what particular respects and details are we to regard Christ as our Exemplar? All things recorded of Him in Holy Writ are for our instruction but not for our imitation. There were some things which Christ did as God, as for example when He wrought miracles: “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work . . . For as the Father raiseth up the dead, and quickeneth them; even so the Son quickeneth whom He will” (John 5:17, 21). “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then said He to the sick of the palsy) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house” (Matt. 9:6)—even the Apostles never performed such deeds in their own name or by their own power. Again—as Mediator, Christ performed works of merit, thereby making expiation for the sins of His people and “bringing in everlasting righteousness” for them, thus obtaining their justification and reconciliation; so now His intercession secures their preservation. Now no mere man can do anything meritorious, for at best we are all “unprofitable servants.” The Romanists, who are merit-mongers, are grievous offenders here.
Even as Man Christ performed extraordinary acts which are not for our emulation. His fasting for forty days and nights, His walking upon the waters, His spending a whole night in prayer (Luke 6:12)—we do not read in Scripture of anyone else doing so—are cases in point. So, too, He performed certain temporary works which pertained to the time in which He lived, which are not for our imitation: such as His being circumcised, keeping the Passover, etc. Wherein, then, is Christ to be imitated by us? First, in all those moral duties which pertain to all men at all times, which are neither extraordinary nor temporary, comprehended in the loving of God with all our hearts and our neighbours as ourselves. Second, in such duties as belong to a like calling: as the child obeying its parents (Luke 2:52), the citizen paying his taxes (Matt. 17:27), the ministering of the Gospel diligently (Luke 8:1) and faithfully (Heb. 3:2) discharging his office. Third, in all such works as have like reason and occasion for the doing of them: Matthew 12:12, John 8:59, etc.
In addition to those three general rules, the believer’s conformity to Christ corresponds to the states through which He passed. The Man Christ Jesus first entered a state of humiliation before God rewarded Him by bringing Him into a state of exaltation. And therefore has God ordered that, in this, the members shall resemble their Head: they are called upon to endure suffering before they enter into the promised glory. The disciples of the Lord Jesus have to experience a measure of opposition, persecution, hatred, affliction and they do so for their hope of a better life to come. Thus they do but follow “the Captain of their salvation,” who was “made perfect through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10). Has not God declared, “If we be dead with Him (Christ), we shall also live with Him: if we suffer, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:11, 12)? That order is inescapable: “Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10).
In like manner, the Christian is to be conformed unto the special acts of Christ’s mediation which are His death and resurrection. These are of paramount consideration, for they are not only a pattern proposed to our meditation but they possess a great influence upon our dying to sin and living unto holiness. This is evidenced from the fact that those effects of grace in us are ascribed to those acts of Christ’s mediation which carry most correspondence with them. Thus our mortification is ascribed to Christ’s crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), our vivification to His rising unto life (Phil. 3:10), and our heavenly-mindedness to His ascension (Phil. 3:20); so that all of those chief acts of Christ are verified in His people. We die to sin as Christ died for our sins.
But in descending to more specific details, it is in Christ’s graces we are to be conformed unto Him. All the graces and virtues of the Spirit were represented in their grandest glory and brightest lustre in His life here on earth. First, the purity and holiness of His life is proposed as a glorious pattern for the saints to imitate: “Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure” (1 John 3:3). Before enlarging upon this let us point out wherein Christ is unique and beyond our imitation. He was essentially holy in His being, for He is “the Holy One of God.” He entered this world immaculate, pure from the least stain of pollution: therefore it was said to His mother: “That holy thing which shall be born of thee” (Luke 1:35). Again—He was effectually holy, for He makes others holy, for by His sufferings and blood there is opened a fountain “for sin and for uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1). He is also infinitely holy, as He is God, and no measure can be set upon His holiness as Mediator, for He received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). In these particulars He is inimitable.
Notwithstanding the above exceptions, the holiness of Christ is presented as a pattern for us. He was truly and sincerely holy, without fiction or pretense. When the prince of this world scrutinized Him he could find no defect in Him (John 14:31). He was pure gold throughout. The Pharisee may pretend to be holy but it is only in outward appearance. Now the Christian’s holiness must be genuine, sincere, without simulation. Christ was uniformly holy: at one time and place as well as another. The same even tenor of holiness ran through the whole of His life from first to last: so should it be with His followers: “As He which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:15). Alas, what inconsistencies we have to bemoan: one part of our life heavenly, another earthly!
Christ was exemplary holy: a pattern to all that came near Him, so that even those sent to arrest Him had to return to their masters and say “never man spake as this Man.” And we are to imitate Him in this respect. The Thessalonian saints were commended because they “were ensamples to all that believe in Macedonia and Achaia. For from you sounded out the Word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to Godwards is spread abroad” (1 Thess. 1:7, 8). Let none go out of your company, Christian reader, without being either convicted or edified. Christ was strictly holy: “Which of you convicteth Me of sin?” was His challenge. The most observing and unfriendly eye could pick no flaw in His actions. It is our duty to imitate Christ in this, too: “That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
Second, the obedience of Christ to His Father’s will is a pattern for the Christian’s emulation: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . . (who) became obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:5, 8). Now Christ’s obedience was free and voluntary, not forced and compulsory. “Then said I, Lo, I come . . . I delight to do Thy will, O My God” (Psa. 40:7, 8). Nor did He waver, later, when suffering so grievously in the discharge of that will: “Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life” (John 10:17). So the Christian is to follow the steps of Christ, doing nothing grudgingly and counting not God’s commands to be grievous. Our obedience must be rendered cheerfully if it is to be acceptable. Christ’s obedience was unreserved and entire, declining no part of His Father’s will. See His perfect submission in Gethsemane. Here, too, he has left us an example: we are to do the most unpleasant tasks which God assigns us. Happy the Christian who can say with the Apostle, “for I am ready not to be bound only, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).
The obedience of Christ was entirely disinterested. It was wrought for no self ends, but for the glory of God: “I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do” (John 17:4). Christ sought not honour of men—but the great desire of His soul was “Father, glorify Thy name” (John 12:28). This quality must also characterize our obedience: “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Phil. 2:4). The streams of Christ’s obedience flowed from the fountain of love to God. “But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do” (John 14:31). Let this also be true of us, for loveless obedience is of no value in the sight of God. The obedience of Christ was constant, continuing unto His very last breath. A being not weary in well-doing is required of us: “Be thou faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10).
Third, the self-denial of Christ is the pattern for the believer: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). Though there is to be a resemblance, there can be no exact equivalent. “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). Who can gauge what Christ, for the glory of God and the love which He bare to the elect, gave up for us? How utterly trivial in comparison is the greatest sacrifice we are called upon to make! Christ was under no obligation whatever to deny Himself for us but He has placed us under the strongest obligations to deny ourselves for His sake. Though under no obligation, He denied Himself readily, making no objection to the severest part of it. Then let it not be said of us, “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil. 2:21). Let not self be loved, petted, pitied, pampered and indulged—rather renounce and mortify it, and make the pleasing and glorifying of Christ your only business.
Fourth, the activity and diligence of Christ in fulfilling the work of God committed unto Him was a pattern for all believers to imitate. It is said of Him that “He went about doing good” (Acts 10:39), and what a glorious work He accomplished in so short a time!—a work which will be celebrated to all eternity by the praises of the redeemed. It was a work upon which His heart was intently set: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me.” It was a work under which He never fainted, despite the greatest discouragements and opposition. The very shortness of the time provoked Him to the greatest diligence: “I must work the works of Him that sent Me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4). He improved all opportunities and occasions; granting Nicodemus an interview at night, preaching the Gospel to the woman at the well when He was exhausted from His journey. Nothing displeased Him more than to be dissuaded from His work. “Get thee behind Me, Satan,” He said to Peter when that Apostle said “spare Thyself, Lord.”
Shall His followers, then, trifle their lives away in vanity? Shall we be slothful when He was so diligent? How great an honour God has placed on us by calling us to His service. Steadfastness in the work of obedience is our greatest security in the hour of temptation: “The LORD is with you, while ye be with Him” (2 Chron. 15:2). Diligence in prosecuting holiness is the way to get more: Luke 18:8. Graces grow by being used; spiritual acts lead to spiritual habits; talents faithfully employed are rewarded by an increase thereof. Diligence in the work of God is the direct way to an assurance of the love of God: 2 Peter 1:5-10. Diligence in obedience is the greatest security against backsliding: coldness leads to carelessness, carelessness to negligence, negligence to apostasy. The more diligent we are in serving God, the more we become like Christ.
Fifth the inoffensiveness of the life of Christ on earth is an excellent pattern for all His people. He injured none and never gave occasion for any to be justly hurt at Him. He was not only holy but “harmless.” He waived His own personal rights in order to avoid the giving of offense, as in the case of the tribute money: Matthew 17:27. When He was reviled, He “reviled not again” (1 Peter 2:23). So circumspect was our Saviour that though His enemies sought occasion against Him, they could not find any: John 19:4. Let us, then, earnestly seek grace that we may imitate this blessed excellency of His life, that we may obey God’s command and be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke” (Phil. 2:15). The honour of Christ, whose name we bear, is bound up in our deportment. The rule which He has laid upon us is, “Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”
Sixth, the humility and meekness of Christ is proposed by Himself as a pattern for His people’s imitation: “learn of Me; for I am meek and lowly in heart” (Matt. 11:29). He abased Himself by taking upon Him the form of a servant. He stooped to the lowest office by washing the disciple’s feet. When He presented Himself to Israel as their King, it was in humiliation, riding upon the back of an ass: “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, etc.” (Matt. 21:5). He declared, “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Matt. 20:28). He condescended to the lowest of men, eating with “publicans and sinners” (Matt. 9:11). In all of this He has left us an example to follow. O to be “clothed with humility” (1 Peter 5:5) and thereby evidence our conformity unto Christ!
Pride has no part of one who professes to be a follower of the Lord Jesus. It not only betrays lack of communion with Christ but woeful ignorance of self. Nothing is so provoking to God and more quickly estranges the soul from Him: “Though the LORD is high, yet hath He respect unto the lowly: but the proud He knoweth afar off” (Psa. 138:6). Pride is not only utterly inconsistent with the complaints we make of our corruptions but it presents a serious stumbling block to the children of God. Be not ambitious of the world’s great ones but content yourself as one of Christ’s little ones. Learn humility at His feet. Evidence it in your apparel and deportment: 1 Peter 3:3. Display it in cultivating fellowship with the poorest of the flock: Romans 12:16. Show it by speaking of and comporting yourself as “less than the least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8).
Seventh, the contentment of Christ in a low and mean condition in this world is an excellent pattern for His people’s imitation. His portion here was a condition of deepest poverty and contempt. The child of lowly parents; born in a manger. So deprived of the comforts of this world that, much of His time, He had nowhere to lay His head. So poor that He had to borrow a penny for the purpose of pointing to its superscription. Yet He never murmured or complained. Nay, so far from it, so perfectly content was He with God’s appointments that He declared, “The lines are fallen unto Me in pleasant places” (Psa. 16:6). Under the most degrading and painful sufferings He never resisted nor repined: “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth: He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7). “O that in this also the poorest Christians would imitate their Saviour, and learn to manage an afflicted condition with a contented spirit: let there be no complaints, or foolish charging of God heard from you, whatever straits or troubles He brings unto you.
“The meanest and most afflicted Christian is owner of many rich, invaluable mercies: Ephesians 1:3; 1 Corinthians 3:23. Is sin pardoned and God reconciled? then never open your mouths any more. You have many precious promises that God will not forsake you in your straits: Hebrews 13:5. Your whole life has been an experience of the faithfulness of God to His promises. How useful and beneficial all your afflictions are to you! they purge your sins, wean you from the world and turn to your salvation; then, how unreasonable must your discontentedness at them be! The time of your relief and full deliverance from all your troubles is at hand: the time is but short that you shall have any concernment about such things. Your lot falls by Divine direction upon you and bad as it may be, it is much easier and sweeter than the condition of Christ in this world was. Yet He was contented, and why not you?” (John Flavell, to whom we are indebted for much in the above seven points).
Imitation of Christ Proves Our Interest in Him “He that saith he abideth in Him ought himself also so to walk, even as He walked” (1 John 2:6). Let it be duly considered that the principle design of the Apostle in this Epistle is to exhibit certain signs and marks, both negative and positive, for the examination or trial of men’s claims to be Christians (see 5:13). It is in that light our verse must be interpreted: the proof of a saving interest in Christ is our imitation of Him. Were this criterion faithfully insisted upon today from the pulpit much of the empty profession now abounding would be clearly exposed. A claim is made: “he that saith he abideth in Him,” which signifies an interest in and communion with Him. The only way in which that claim can be established is by walking as Christ walked—following the example He has left us.
“Every man is bound to the imitation of Christ under penalty of forfeiting his claim to Christ. The necessity of this imitation of Christ convincingly appears in divers ways. First, from the established order of salvation, which is fixed and unalterable. God that hath appointed the end, hath also established the means and order by which men shall attain the ultimate end. Now conformity to Christ is the established method in which God will bring many souls to glory: ‘For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the Firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom. 8:29). The same God who hath predestinated men to salvation, hath in order thereunto, predestinated them unto conformity to Christ and this order of Heaven is never to be reversed; we may as well hope to be saved without Christ, as to be saved without conformity to Christ.
“Secondly, the nature of Christ-mystical requires this conformity, and renders it indispensably necessary. Otherwise, the body of Christ must be heterogeneous: of a nature different from the Head and how monstrous and uncomely would this be! This would represent Christ to the world in an image, or idea, much like that, ‘This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay’ (Dan. 2:32, 33). Christ, the Head, is pure and holy, and therefore very unsuitable to sensual and worldly members. And therefore the Apostle in his description of Christ-mystical, describes the members of Christ (as they ought to be) of the same nature and quality with the Head: ‘As is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly; and as we have borne the image of the earthly, so we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.’ That image or resemblance of Christ, which shall be complete and perfect after the resurrection, must be begun in its first draught here by the work of regeneration.
“Thirdly, this resemblance and conformity to Christ appears necessary from the communion which all believers have with Him in the same spirit of grace and holiness. Believers are called Christ’s ‘fellows’ or co-partners (Psa. 45:7) from their participation with Him of the same Spirit. God giveth the same Spirit unto us, which He more plentifully poured out upon Christ. Now where the same Spirit and principle is, there the same fruits and operations must be produced, according to the proportions and measures of the Spirit of grace communicated; and this reason is farther enforced by the very design and end of God in the infusion of the Spirit of grace: for it is plain from Ezekiel 36:27 that practical holiness and obedience are the scope and design of that infusion of the Spirit. The very innate property of the Spirit of God in men is to elevate their minds, set their affections upon heavenly things, purge their hearts from earthly dross, and fit them for a life of holiness and obedience. Its nature also is assimilating, and changeth them in whom it is into the same image with Jesus Christ, their Heavenly Head: 2 Corinthians 3:18.
“Fourthly, the necessity of this imitation of Christ may be argued from the design and end of Christ’s exhibition to the world in a body of flesh. For though we detest that doctrine of the Socinians which makes the exemplary life of Christ to be the whole end of His incarnation, yet we must not run so far from an error as to lose a precious Truth. We say, the satisfaction of His blood was a main and principal end of His incarnation, according to Matthew 20:28. We affirm also that it was a great design and end of the incarnation of Christ to set before us a pattern of holiness for our imitation, for so speaks the Apostle: ‘He hath left us an example, that we should follow his steps’ (1 Peter 2:21); and this example of Christ greatly obliges believers to His imitation: ‘let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:5).
“Fifthly, our imitation of Christ is one of those great articles which every man is to subscribe, whom Christ will admit into the number of His disciples. ‘Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple’ (Luke 14:27); and again, ‘If any man serve Me, let him follow Me’ (John 12:26). To this condition we have submitted if we be sincere believers; and therefore are strictly bound to the imitation of Christ, not only by God’s command, but by our own consent. But if we profess interest in Christ, when our hearts never consented to follow and imitate His example, then are we selfdeceiving hypocrites, wholly disagreeing from the Scripture character of believers. They that are Christ’s are there described as walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
“Sixthly, the honour of Christ necessitates the conformity of Christians to His example, else what way is there left to stop detracting mouths and to vindicate the name of Christ from the reproaches of the world? How can wisdom be justified of her children, except it be this way? By what means shall we cut off occasion from such as desire occasion but by regulating our lives by Christ’s example? The world hath eyes to see what we practice, as well as ears to hear what we profess. Therefore, either show the consistency between your profession and practice, or you can never hope to vindicate the name and honour of the Lord Jesus” (John Flavell, 17th Century Puritan).
From all that has now been before us we may draw the following inferences. First, if all who claim a saving interest in Christ are strictly bound to imitate Him, then it follows that Christianity is very unjustly charged by the world with the evils and scandals of empty professors. Nothing can be more unrighteous and unreasonable, for Christianity severely censures loose and scandalous actions in all professors and therefore is not to be blamed for them. “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world” (Titus 2:11, 12). Really, it is an argument greatly in favour of Christianity that even wicked men covet the name of it, though they only cloak their sins under it.
Second, if all professors forfeit their claim to a saving interest in Christ who endeavour not to sincerely and earnestly imitate Him in the holiness of His life, then how small a number of real Christians are there in the world! If flowery talking without strict walking, if common profession without holy practice, if Church membership without denying self and treading the Narrow Way were sufficient to constitute a Christian then a considerable percentage of earth’s population would be entitled to that name. But if Christ owns none but those who follow the example that He has left, then His flock is indeed a little one. The vast majority of those who claim to be Christians have a name to live, but are dead (Rev. 3:1), being such as walk after the flesh, following the course of this world and yielding their members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin (Rom. 6:13). The demands of Christ are too rigid for them: they prefer the Broad Road where the majority are found.
Third, what blessed times we should witness if true Christianity once generally obtained and prevailed in the world! How it would humble the proud, meeken the selfwilled, and spiritualize those that are carnal! A perverse world has often charged Christianity with being the cause of all the tumults which are in it; whereas nothing but pure Christianity, in the power of it, can cure those epidemics of evil. If the great majority of our fellows were regenerated by the Spirit and brought to walk after Christ in holiness, living in meekness and self-denial, then would our prisons be closed—armies and navies done away with, jealousies and animosities removed, the wilderness and solitary places be glad and the desert would rejoice and blossom as the rose. That is what constitutes the great difference between Heaven and a world that lies in the Wicked One: holiness is the very atmosphere of the former, whereas it is hated and banned here.
Fourth, it also follows that real Christians are the best companions. It is a blessed thing to consort with those who are genuinely seeking to follow the examples of Christ, for the holiness, heavenly-mindedness, and spiritual graces which were in Him, in their measure, are to be found in all true disciples of His. They show forth the praises of Him who has called them out of darkness into light. Something of the fruit of the Spirit is to be seen in all those whom He indwells. Yet it must be remembered that there is a great deal of difference between one Christian and another and that the best is sanctified but in part. If there be something engaging and sweet, there is also that which is distasteful and bitter in the most spiritual and mature saints. This it is which gives us occasion to forbear one another in love. Nevertheless, this is most certain, that notwithstanding all their infirmities and corruptions, the Lord’s people are the best companions to be found on this earth. Happy are they who are now enjoying fellowship with those in whom can be discerned the likeness of Christ.
Fifth, if no man’s claim to being Christ’s be warranted except so far as he is walking according to Him, then how groundless and worthless are the expectation of all unsanctified persons who walk after their own lusts. “None are more forward to claim the privileges of religion than those that reject the duties of it; multitudes hope to be saved by Christ, who yet refuse to be governed by Him. But such hopes have no Scripture warrant to support them; yea, they have many Scripture testimonies against them. ‘Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God’ (1 Cor 6:9, 10). O how many thousand vain hopes are laid in the dust, and how many thousand souls are sentenced to Hell by this one Scripture!” (John Flavel, 1660).
Then how it behooves those of us who profess to be Christian to be not conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. How we should strive to follow Christ’s steps. That should be the great business of our lives, as it is the chief scope of the Gospel. If Christ has conformed Himself to us by taking upon Him our nature, how reasonable it is that we should conform ourselves to Him in a way of obedience and sanctification. He came under the Law for our sakes (Gal. 4:4), then the least we can do in return is to gladly take His yoke upon us. It was Christ’s abasement to conform Himself to those who were infinitely beneath Him—it will be our advancement to conform ourselves to Him who is so high above us. Surely the love of Christ must constrain us to spare no efforts to “grow up into Him in all things” (Eph. 4:15).
If we shall be conformed to Him in Glory, how logical it is that we should now conform ourselves to Him in holiness. “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2), like Him not only in our souls but our bodies, too, will be transformed like unto His (Phil. 3:21). What a motive is this to bring us into conformity with Christ here, especially seeing that our conformity to Him in holiness is the evidence of our conformity to Him in Glory (Rom. 6:5). The conformity of our lives to Christ is our highest excellence in this world, for the measure of our grace is to be estimated by this rule. So far as we imitate Christ, and no farther, are we of any real help and benefit to those around us; contrariwise, the less we be conformed to Christ, the greater hindrances and stumbling blocks are we both to the saved and unsaved. What a weighty and solemn consideration is this! How it should drive us to our knees, seeking grace to become closer followers of Christ.
“That ye would walk worthy of God, who hath called you unto His kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12). By “worthiness” the Apostle had no reference to what is meritorious but to that comeliness and decorum which befits a Christian. As Davenant has pointed out, “The word ‘worthy’ as used in Scripture does not always denote an exact proportion of equality between one thing and another but a certain suitableness and fitness which excludes inconsistency.” Now to walk worthy of God is to walk as Christ walked and any deviation from that standard is a reflection upon our profession and a reproach upon Him. It is for our own peace and joy that we be conformed to Christ’s pattern: the answer of a good conscience and the smile of God’s approbation are rich compensation for denying the flesh. A comfortable death is the ordinary close of a holy life: “Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psa. 37:37). Then let us make every effort unto a closer following of Christ.
In drawing to a conclusion let us seek to pen a few lines of comfort to those who are cast down by the realization of how far, far short they come to measuring up to the standard which Christ has set before them. According to the yearnings of the new nature, you have sincerely endeavoured to follow Christ’s example but being weak in grace and meeting with much opposition from the flesh and temptations from the Devil, you have been frequently turned aside from the holy purposes and designs of your honest hearts to the great grief and discouragement of your souls. You can heartily say with David, “O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes!” (Psa. 119:5). You have tried hard and long to follow after exact holiness, “If by any means” you might attain unto it. But your efforts have been repeatedly thwarted, your aspirations dashed and you have to cry “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” (Rom. 7:24).
First, let us assure the genuinely exercised soul that such defects in obedience do not invalidate your justification, or in any wise affect your acceptance with and standing before God. Your justification is built not upon your obedience but upon Christ’s. However imperfect you are in yourself, you are “complete in Him” (Col. 2:10). Woe had it been to Abraham, Moses, David or Paul if their justification had depended upon their own holiness and good works. Let not, then, your sad failures dampen your joy in Christ but rather be increasingly thankful for His robe of righteousness which hides your filthy rags! Second, your heart-anguish over your unlikeness to Christ, instead of being a proof that you are less sanctified than those who grieve not over their lack of conformity to Him, evidences you are more sanctified than they, for it shows you are better acquainted with your heart than they are, have a deeper loathing of sin and love God more. The most eminent saints have made the bitterest lamentation on this account: Psalm 38:4.
Third, the Holy Spirit makes an excellent use of your infirmities and turns your failures unto your spiritual advantages. By those very defects He hides pride from your eyes, subdues your self-righteousness, causes you to appreciate more deeply the riches of free grace and place a higher value upon the precious blood of the Lamb. By your many falls He makes you to long more ardently for Heaven and gradually reconciles you to the prospect of death. The more a holy soul is buffeted by sin and Satan, the more sincerely will he cry, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest” (Psa. 55:6). “O the blessed chemistry of Heaven, to extract such mercies out of such miseries” (J. Flavell), to make sweet flowers spring up out of such bitter roots. Fourth, your bewailed infirmities do not break the bond of the Everlasting Covenant: that holds firm, notwithstanding your many defects and corruptions. “Iniquities prevail against me” said David, yet in the same breath he added, “Thou shalt purge them away” (Psa. 65:3).
Fifth, though the defects of your obedience are grievous to God, yet your deep sorrows for them are well-pleasing in His sight: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Psa. 51:17). Sixth, your very grief is a conformity to Christ: for when here He was “the Man of sorrows.” If He suffered because of our sins, shall we not be made to weep over them? Seventh, “Though God has left many defects to humble you, yet He hath given many things to comfort. This is a comfort, that the desire of thy soul is to God and the remembrance of His name. This is a comfort, that thy sins are not thy delight as once they were but thy shame and sorrow. This is a comfort, that thy case is not singular but more or less the same complaints and sorrows are found in all gracious souls through the world” (J. Flavell, to whom we are indebted for much of the above).
Originally edited by Emmett O'Donnell for Mt. Zion Publications, a ministry of Mt. Zion Bible Church, 2603 West Wright St., Pensacola, FL 32505. www.mountzion.org