Where are you on the Imitation Question?

What’s the Imitation Question? What is the one thing Paul teaches “everywhere in every church”? Paul teaches his own way of life, his “ways in Christ… everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:17). Thus, Jason Hood opens his excellent new book on imitation, Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern.

But that leaves the question: Where you are on the Imitation Question? Jason Hood proposes three basic approaches to the idea that we are to imitate Christ. Or, How central is imitation of Christ to your understanding of the Christian life? And that means what does it mean to imitate Christ?

1. The Left: imitation means embracing the marginalized. Hood suggests this approach misses the gospel in its reduction of imitation to social justice or focusing on the marginalized. Is salvation at work in imitation or is it just an ethic?

2. The Middle: imitation is a more moralistic approach to discipleship and “be like Jesus” sermons and “WWJS” bracelets. Very little emphasis is found on salvation or the deeper perceptions of the gospel as shaping what imitation means.

3. The Right: imitation is something to be suspicious of. Largely overlooked. In fact, for some on the Right, imitation theology means being Catholic and absorbing Thomas a Kempis.

Jason Hood moves in his book through three dimensions of imitation: We imitate God, we imitate Christ, and we imitate the saints. When the fulness of imitation is seen, the gospel — life, death, burial, resurrection, exaltation of Christ — is at the core of what imitation means. So for Hood “imitation… is an essential aspect of Christianity (in fact, it is an essential aspect of being human) that informs our sense of identity, shapes our disciple-making and teaches us about our destiny” (16).

Imitating God

It begins with our being image bearers (Eikons of God): we are called to rule or represent God in this world, and that means being God-like and God-ly, the temptation being to be God instead of God-like.  We are God-like, and imitators of God, in creativity, work, vocation, righteousness, participating in redemption of the world, generosity, in wisdom, in love … we are royalty.  We are also priests. This is about holiness and worship and purity and advocating before God.

We imitate God in participating in what God is doing on God’s behalf and for his glory. It is God’s mission but God has chosen to accomplish that mission through us, so we are part of God’s work as those who imitate God.

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  • NateW

    I wonder if there is something significant in the difference between imitating Christ and being unified with Christ. To me, imitation puts the focus a bit too heavily on effort, while unity is more multi-dimensional—it includes doing things in a Jesus like way, but also allows for the fact that truly Christ-like actions only flow from heart-knowledge of grace.

    So, yes, I do desire to imitate Christ, but this is not the center of my faith. Resting in God’s gracious Love, one cannot help but bear Christ-like fruit.

  • Rick

    Amen. Well said.

  • scotmcknight

    NateW, the same can perhaps be said about the “following” words, or in fact any obedience words, since they all imply an image with some effort. Union in Jason Hood’s work draws us not away from effort but into the core theology of the gospel at work in imitation.

  • NateW

    Very true. Thanks Scot.

  • I see this as similar to language of what it means to follow a Rabbi. One Hasidic story tells of someone asking a young disciple of a hasidic rabbi: “Why do you go to his house?” The response: “To see how he puts on his shoes.” Imitation is necessary for mastery in anything.

    I understand the fear of turning imitation into a works orientation–but isn’t that true with any aspect of Christian behavior? While there are those who follow a works-oriented righteousness sometimes I think we argue with a straw man when we throw out the expected caveat: Now, I don’t mean salvation by works! When someone talks about obedience or discipleship or imitation to me, my mind doesn’t immediately go to–“Whoa, wait a minute–is this salvation by works?” I’ve already fought that battle in my own heart–I know legalism is a dead end.

    It may be a necessary disclaimer, but it has become somewhat off-putting for me these days–almost like an obligatory apology.

  • Sorry, one other thought–I think of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). In order for the Spirit to work his fruit within us, we must place ourselves in the right environment–which is submission to the Spirit. Submission always involves obedience, doesn’t it? But does my submission cause the fruit? Not at all. The fruit is the total working of the Spirit. I don’t earn or cause or create the fruit by my submission–it is all a work of the Spirit.

  • Paul W

    The imitation of Christ has been one of the most significant labels for how I have understood the fundamental nature of living a Christian life.

    For me the central image is that of picking up a cross and following Jesus. More conceptually its about developing a particular sort of orientation in life. That is, having an attitude of mind which subordinates (sacrifices) personal interest to that which God values.

    In the process of trying to live out those values a priority is given to the needs of others particularly those who are in various ways impoverished and marginalized. And, it probably should be noted, that part of the imitation involves holding on tight to God in order to remain constant and faithful in the face of hostilities (IMHO).