The goal of every Christian is to become like Christ. This is what God has in mind in one of the most beloved promises of the Bible: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). The “good” in view is explained in the next verse: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (v. 29).
All of our efforts at discipleship must keep this goal in mind. We want to help people grow in Christlikeness. That cannot be accomplished merely by teaching the principles of Christianity theoretically. Rather, to help believers grow as disciples, we must be willing not only to tell them how but also to show them how.
The Apostle Paul emphasized this “show and tell” approach to discipleship in his own ministry. That is why he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He viewed as inherent in his own growth as a disciple the responsibility to help others grow. So he invited other Christians to follow him as he followed Christ.
Paul reveals two commitments in this admonition. First and foremost is his commitment to be an imitator of Christ. Granted, Jesus is much more than an example for us, and no one will ever be made right with God simply by trying to imitate Him. Any devotion to Christ that does not arise out of sincere faith in Him as Lord is misguided sentimentality. That reality, however, should not keep us from fully appreciating the power that His example can be for us. As Octavius Winslow rightly notes:
There is no single practical truth in the Word of God on which the Spirit is more emphatic than the example which Christ has set for his followers to imitate. The church needed a perfect pattern, a flawless model. It wanted a living embodiment of those precepts of the gospel so strictly enjoined upon every believer, and God has graciously set before us our true model.
The whole character of Jesus’ life of obedience to God’s commandments shows us how, as His disciples, we are to live in this world. His call is the same today as it was when He walked the earth: “Follow me.” So, we are to pattern our love for one another after His love for us (John 13:34). We are to cultivate the mentality of a servant because we see that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). We are to endure unjust suffering with patience with the knowledge that this is part of our calling, because, as Peter explains,
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21–23)
Paul was determined to live in accordance with God’s revealed will just as Jesus had done in His earthly ministry. He pursued Christlikeness as a goal.
Have you ever invited someone to imitate you as you imitate Christ?
In addition to this, Paul was also committed to helping other believers do the same. That is why he said, “Be imitators of me.” It was a part of his disciple-making strategy. He wrote to the Philippians, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). He not only verbally instructed believers in the way of Christ, but he also personally modeled Christlikeness as he lived out his faith before them.
So many Christlike characteristics are “caught” rather than “taught.” Paul can and did counsel Christians to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (2:3). His words, however, had greater impact when they were joined to his own example of self-sacrificial living (1 Cor. 9:4–15).
Paul not only taught the Ephesian elders the words of Jesus that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but he also showed them how to apply that lesson through his own example of “working hard” in order to “help the weak” (Acts 20:35). He wanted them to join him in cultivating the kind of generosity commended by the life and ministry of Jesus.
The invitation to have someone imitate you as you imitate Christ can be daunting. After all, no one is perfectly like Christ. But perfection isn’t what is required. Paul never entertained such a thought (see Rom. 7:15–20). What is needed is a sincere faith in Christ—the kind of faith that fuels quick and humble repentance. As Martin Luther said in the first of his Ninety-Five Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
The person who is diligent in imitating Christ will have faith in the Lord and repentance over sin that is evident. He will be committed to becoming more and more like Christ and will be unsatisfied with every shortcoming. Every serious Christian should find someone like that and seek to follow his or her example.
Have you done that? Further, have you ever followed Paul’s example and invited someone to imitate you as you imitate Christ? If not, why not do so today? This is the Apostolic pattern of discipleship. To employ it is to invite blessing both on yourself and on those who follow Christ with you.
This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of TableTalk Magazine.
Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.
Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention, Traditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous.
Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.