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Union and Imitation

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"Why can't you be like your brother?" We all know intuitively that guilt-driven comparisons like this don't actually work, but sometimes our frustration gets the better of us as parents. We hear, and sometimes say, the same thing in church. Frustrated with the lack of serious discipleship, we turn more easily and naturally to threats. In sharp contrast, Jesus spoke of our being his younger siblings, living branches of his vine. "You did not choose me; I chose you and appointed you to bear fruit that would last" (Jn 15:16). As I point out below, Paul's horizon was much deeper, richer, and broader than imitation of Jesus. Being like Jesus Christ has its place only if we are in Christ to begin with.


As G. C. Berkouwer reminds us, we are not moving from theory to practice when we turn from justification to sanctification. Even in our sanctification, we keep our eye on Christ and his all-sufficient righteousness imputed as the only basis for our growth in holiness. Separating justification from sanctification is as serious as confusing them, because it means that the latter is "cut loose or abstracted from justification." When that happens, says Berkouwer, justification is easily seen as the gracious act of God, while sanctification becomes the result of human striving. Paul teaches that believers are "sanctified in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 1:2, 30; 6:11; 1 Thes 5:23; cf. Acts 20:32; 26:18). As Bavinck puts it, "Many indeed acknowledge that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ, but seem to think that—at least they act as if—they must be sanctified by a holiness they themselves have acquired." Something close to this error seems to have been held by Paul's opponents in Galatia (Gal 3:1-9).


Perhaps the dominant picture for sanctification in evangelical circles is the imitation of Christ. "WWJD?" (What Would Jesus Do?) summarizes that orientation. Sure, there is talk of being "in Christ," but the driving model is Jesus as model and example. This can take the form of a heavy emphasis on spiritual disciplines or on social outreach. Of course, it is true that there are New Testament calls to imitate Christ (for example, his humility and love for others, in Philippians 2); in fact, the idiom for the life of faith in the Old Testament is "walking after the Lord," as a servant-king follows the Great King in a public recognition of the covenant. However, even these rest on a deeper, richer foundation of union and communion with the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit. For example, we are not "walking after the Lord" merely in inimitation, but as guilty and pardoned—indeed, justified—servants who are swept into the train of his royal favor and merciful act of liberating us from our oppressors.


Union with Christ is different from imitation of Christ. There are calls in Scripture to imitate Christ, but this is only possible because of that deeper reality of our being actually united to Christ through faith alone. The best analogy is marriage or adoption: in both cases, we grow more and more into "oneness" and, along with our different personalities, share the common family resemblances because we are legally and organically connected.


The evangelical call of the New Testament is not to be like Christ, but to be in Christ, while the law still calls us to be like Christ on the basis of that gospel announcement. Because we are "in Christ," we should make every effort to be "like Christ." Reverse that order, or deny one of the clauses, and it's trouble—not just in theory, but in practice. In other words, while sanctification finds its direction in the law, it finds its ground in the gospel. George Lindbeck reminds us that the proper category for discipleship and imitatio Christi is not the atonement or justification, but the third use of the law. Otherwise, the Christian life is reduced to a moralistic attempt to live up to Christ's example rather than our living out of the realities of Christ's saving work. "Jesus is not first Example and then Savior, but the other way around," Lindbeck adds. Berkouwer is exactly right: "Hence Paul can say without a qualm that he is 'under law to Christ' (1 Cor. 9:21)."


This view puts to flight two perennial temptations: legalism and antinomianism. The law cannot heal; it can only pronounce a just sentence in view of the facts.


Basing sanctification on our imitation of Christ or following his commands can only yield self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and ultimately condemnation for having failed. Only when Christ steps forward as our law-keeping and curse-bearing Mediator are we no longer "under the law"—that is, subject to its demand, "Do this and you shall live."


At the same time, this same gospel creates faith that bears the fruit of righteousness. Because of our justification, the law no longer can condemn us before God's throne. Yet far from leading to moral anarchy, it is precisely on this basis that the deepest intent of the law—love of God and neighbor—is written on our hearts by the finger of God. I once hated the law because it only exposed my failures, but now it comes as the word of my Father who already accepts me as righteous in his Son. Ironically, the very thing that Israel sought (law-righteousness) has eluded it, while those who are justified apart from the law, through faith in Christ alone, are also judged as righteous (Rom 10:1-5). However, there is still more to the gospel. As a result of this justification, we actually begin to love God and neighbor—not only out of gratitude or all-consumming passion for God's glory, but out of the magnificent fact that we are united to Christ. He has attained justification and glorification by his works and now sits enthroned, reigning over all his enemies. What he is, we will be. As goes the King, so goes the kingdom. However, we are not quite there yet. He is the firstborn from the dead, securing our resurrection and giving the Spirit as the security deposit. We are already fully new, yet this new creation is not fully revealed in us. We are justified and regenerated. Both are completed events for us in the past. Nevertheless, we do not yet see all things, including our own hearts, minds, lives, and communities free of temptation and sin.


Just as creation begin with a command, "Let there be....And there was...," so too does the new creation originate in the womb of the Word. It is not something we attain by imitating Christ, but a gift that is given in union with Christ. The result is that second type of speech thatt we see in Genesis 1: "'Let the earth bring forth fruit.' And the earth brought forth fruit." This fruit-bearing, too, is the work of the Spirit through the gospel. It is the law that defines what "fruit" is and it's through the gospel that the Spirit produces it. The church is "a chosen race" and a "holy nation," "that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9). Although "the gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing...For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Cor 4:3, 6). It is not surprising that Paul also thinks of justification (Rom 4:17-18) and the new birth (Rom 6) as analogous to ex nihilo creation (Rom 4:17-18). By speaking righteousness into a condition of unrighteousness, God brings into existence a new creation, which refers not only to justified and renewed individuals but to a living community: his church.


We can err on both sides of this eschatology of sanctification: either in the direction of a sort of "premillennial" under-realized kingdom or a "postmillennial" over-realized kingdom. Like the kingdom more generally, our own sanctification is "already" and "not yet." We press on to take hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of us. We are grieved, but not surprised, when we still sin and fall short of God's glory. Assured of our place "in Christ," we see the imperatives to grow, to mature, to move on, to continue earnestly, to love, to struggle against indwelling sin, and so forth, no longer as threats or conditions of sharing in Christ and his kingdom, but as commands that we are called to obey and, because of the indwelling Spirit working through the gospel, can obey imperfectly.


We are liberated now to seek God's moral will for our lives without fear. The law remains the standard for righteousness, but no more in sanctification than in justification does the law become the basis for our righteousness before God. Otherwise, we would place ourselves under a covenant of works again, fulfilling the conditions of justification, instead of the covenant of grace, with Christ as the fulfiller of all righteousness for us. We must always bear in mind throughout our Christian pilgrimage that the Christ who commands is already also the one who has taken care of our guilt for failing to keep them properly.


How can we despise that holy will of the Father that Jesus not only fulfilled for us out of duty but of which he said, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work" (Jn 4:34)? How can we set aside God's commands when Jesus rebuffed Satan's temptation with his submission to "'every word that comes from the mouth of God'" (Mat 4:4)? How can we cherish those sins from which Christ has liberated us by his death and resurrection? Believers hate their sin and they love God's law, longing to keep it not out of fear of punishment or hope of merit, but because they belong to Christ, who loved us and his law to the point of death on a cross.


So we must beware of seeking a balance between legalism and antinomianism. After explaining the justification of the ungodly, Paul anticipated the logical question: "Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?" (Rom 6:1). The antinomian answers, "Yes!"—or at least imagines that one might continue in sin (i.e., under its reign) and yet be justified. One may make a decision for Christ and be therefore eternally secure, but become a "carnal Christian" who does not bear fruit and may not even still trust in Christ. The legalist replies to Paul's question, "Not on your life! Don't you know that if you still fall into sins—especially the same ones repeatedly, you either lose your salvation or never had it to begin with? If you do not obey, you will not be justified."


Paul's answer stands in sharp contrast to both. He does not even advocate balance between extremes. Rather, he turns again to the gospel: "By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized intto Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:2-4, emphasis added). No one can be united to Christ's death, for the forgiveness of sin, without also being united to his resurrection life (vv 5-6). We have died (a completed act in the past) and now are alive. So instead of issuing an imperative with a threat, Paul proclaims an indicative with a promise. The answer to the antinomian and legalist alike is the gospel. The antinomian has too narrow a view of the gospel, as if it were mere fire insurance—cancelling our debt without actually marrying us to Christ—while the legalist turns the gospel into law. However, Paul returns to the gospel and simply announces that through our union with Christ by faith we have not only justification but sanctification. "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (v 11). It is impossible for a believer to be an unbeliever, under the domain of sin and death. "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey its passions" (v 12). In short, you are not under the reign of sin, so don't act as if you were! Instead of a double source (synergism), redemption is concerned with a double grace: justification and inner renewal. It is all the work of God, in Christ. In Lesslie Newbigin's words,

The idea of a righteousness of one's own is the quintessence of sin. Against this, therefore, against every trace of a holiness or righteousness which does not depend simply upon God's mercy to the sinner, we have to set our faces as relentlessly as Paul did. But equally with Paul we have to recognize that if any man be in Christ there is a new creation, not a fiction but a real supernatural new birth, the life of the risen Christ in the soul.1







1 - Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of Faith (London: SCM Press, 1953), 128-129

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  • Thanks for giving deeper clarity on this matter. Your post is extremely helpful.

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  • Guest - Pieter

    Dr Horton, thank you so much for your article. Could you please help me understand this or point me to something I can read to make this more clear to me - "the proper category for discipleship and imitatio Christi is not the atonement or justification, but the third use of the law"

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  • Guest - sandra

    I often think, "I'm not very sancified so I must not be very justified either."

    What I often hear is "works don’t save, but you have to do them or God must not be enabling you do them, in which case you’re probably not saved."

    I want the gospel to be just what it is: That Christ saves me completely. 100%. I add nothing, not even God-inspired stuff, to my confidence in being saved, because it is rooted entirely in the work of Christ. To me, there is no comfort in this way of looking at security, because it turns the focus back on myself.

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  • Guest - Michael Horton

    Pieter and Sandra,

    That line, which I took from George Lindbeck, makes the point that we have to use the law lawfully. There is that third use of the law, after all, which Lutheran as well as Reformed churches confess. The gospel doesn't make the moral law obsolete. Rather, it establishes the only secure basis from which I can take up my responsibility to love and serve my neighbors. There are many commands in Scripture (including the New Testament). They are meant to be obeyed and part of the "Good News" of the new covenant, prophesied in Jeremiah 31 and unpacked by Jesus and the apostles, is that we are new creatures in Christ as well as justified. Calvin puts the point well in Book 3 of the Institutes: whenever it's a question of our conscience being arraigned before God as judge, the law must not be given the last word. At that bar, Christ always steps forward as the curse-bearing Lamb who rose for our justification. Yet the law still tells us what pleases God as our Father in Christ and from the security of being justified we "work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in [us] to will and to do for his own good pleasure" (Phil 2:12-13).

    Mike Horton

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  • Union with Christ, and Sanctification...

    “Why can’t you be like your brother?” We all know intuitively that guilt-driven comparisons like this don’t actually work, but sometimes our frustration gets the better of us as parents. We hear, and sometimes say, the same thing in church. Frustrated ...

    Like 0 Short URL: