Participation not imitation

In Bone of His Bone, Going Beyond the Imitation of Christ, missionary F.J. Huegel notes that our calling as Christians is not to imitate Christ but to participate in Christ. Rather than merely semantic, this distinction between "imitation" and "participation" is fundamental to understanding our calling as Christians. It also is a corrective to viewing Christian living (ethics) in a way that tends toward legalism, which then can lead to despair and burnout. Huegel begins his analysis by noting some of the "oughts" in Scripture often cited in addressing Christian behavior:
We are to walk as Jesus walked (I John 2:6). We are to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We are to forgive as Jesus forgave - even as He who in the shame and anguish of the Cross looked down upon those who blasphemed Him, while they murdered Him, and forgave (Col. 3:13). We are to be aggressively kind towards those who hate us, yes, we are actually to pray for those who despitefully use us (Matt. 5:44). We are to be overcomers - more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37). We are to give thanks in all things - believing that all things, even those which blast our fondest hopes, work together for our good (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 5:20). 
And, of course, the list of  "oughts" goes on; to which Huegel cries, "Enough!" Indeed, this supposed standard for Christian behavior is overwhelming if we actually think that our calling is to perfectly imitate Jesus in all of these ways. Were that what God actually expects of us, we all are utter failures (are we not?)! The reality is that none of us measures up to the perfection of Christ. To paraphrase Paul in Romans 7, "O wretched people that we are!"

But Huegel notes a way out of this seemingly hopeless situation, which is to acknowledge that we may have been approaching Christian behavior on a false basis: "We have conceived of the Christian life as an Imitation of Christ [however] it is not... It is a Participation of Christ. 'For we are made partakers of Christ' (Hebrews 3:14)" [emphasis added].

As Huegel explains, there certainly are good things in Thomas A. Kempis' book Imitation of Christ, "but the basic idea is false to the principles that underlie the Christian life. To proceed on the basis of Imitation will plunge us in just the sort of 'slough of despond' Paul found himself in when he wrote Romans 7."

What Paul discovered is that what is impossible to us as mere imitators of Christ becomes perfectly natural (actually supernatural) as we become participants in Christ. What this means is coming to know, love and commune with the risen Savior in such a way that we are able to discern what he is doing--able to identify his ongoing life, through the Spirit, in our world. Then, enabled by him through his Spirit, we share (participate) in what he is doing. The perfection is his, not ours.

From this perspective, Christian living (ethics/behavior) is not about "What would Jesus do?" but a watching for and responding to what Jesus actually IS now doing. The only life that conforms to all the standards we reviewed above, is Jesus' own perfect life. And the One who lives and loves perfectly is delighted to share all that he is and does with us.

Will our sharing--our participation--with Jesus be perfect? Certainly not. But, through his Spirit, it will be real; meaningful; life-changing; life-giving.

The reality is that of ourselves we can do nothing that truly measures up to the perfection of Christ. That is why we are called to renounce our own life--our own self-effort--and look, in faith, to Jesus; to embrace our union and communion with him--with his perfect (perfecting) life.

And so let us focus on participation in Christ rather than mere imitation of Christ. That has been our calling all along.


Anonymous said…
The distinction between imitation and participation that Bone seeks to define and elucidate is not clear to me. Perhaps I am missing something?
Ted Johnston said…
The distinction between imitation and participation is between Jesus as a moral example who we seek to emulate and Jesus as living Lord, present in the world through the Spirit, in whose life we actively participate. It's the difference between asking "What would Jesus do?" and asking "What is Jesus doing?" Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke to this by noting that Jesus is now sharing the life of every human being (whether they know it or not) and our calling is to join with Jesus in his place sharing ministry.
Anonymous said…
Alright, the definition of the distinction is much clearer now, but how every human participates in the spiritual life of Christ is not clear to me.

I can understand, if understanding is truly possible, how every Christian has been integrated into the spiritual life of the risen Christ, but I don't understand how the spiritual life of Christ can be at work in those in whom "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience"(Eph.2:2), is at work?

In addition, Paul was inspired to ask a series of rhethorical queations thus: 1 Cor.6:14-18. These questions teach that Christ and his church is holy, and separate from the world. So how can every human be in Christ, puzzles my comprehension?
Ted Johnston said…
For Christ to be at work in every person's life is not the same as saying that every person knows of that work, yet alone yields their life to it. God, in Christ, has reconciled the whole world to himself. That reconciliation is not waving some sort of magic wand from a distance, or merely dealing with a written record somewhere. Rather it has to do with how Jesus has, in his own vicarious humanity, united himself to all humanity. This objective reality must then be experienced personally (subjectively). Indeed, it is the Spirit's work to bring this reality into the present experience of people, one at a time. When our eyes are opened by the Spirit, we can for the first time see (experience) the work of Jesus, which has been going on in our life long before we came to this place of conversion/illumination.
Jerome Ellard said…
All are integrated into the Life of Christ by the ongoing incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus. He is the one who sustains our existence, moment by moment. By the incarnation, the Creator has taken the created into Himself, and therefore, into the very life of the Triune God. As Paul said, "we live and move and have our being in Him."
Anonymous said…

Yes, God is at work in the life of everyone, even those that reject his revelation to man. For example, God was at work in the life of Pharaoh, but not in the same way he was at work in the life of Moses.

But Christ as mediator and redeemer has a special relationship with man, but especially with them that are saved. He relates to all men. To them that perish, he shares their suffering, but in them that are saved, he suffers for them, and they suffer with him, so that they may share his glory(2 Cor.2:15-16).

It seems to me that the assumption that we can imitate Christ somehow, is similar to the Ten Commandments or the Torah as a whole: it's a wonderful standard that is impossible for me. Only as Christ is in me (Ezek. 36:26-27, John 17:23 etc) because he has taken me up into himself, can the truth of who he is be made evident or fulfilled in me. I cannot love my enemies and those who trouble me, but Jesus can. I cannot have perfect faith, but Jesus in me does. Sometimes, when I surrender my flesh to his spirit in me, his presence becomes visible. But I will always fail to "imitate him" or follow or obey, on my own.
Ted Johnston said…
It's all about sharing in both his being and his doing, isn't it. Christ in us is our hope of glory.
Anonymous said…
Hi Mark

That is a beautiful summary of Jesus' teaching: "for without me, you can do nothing"(John 15:5). Therefore, the Christian has no merit of his own, his merits are gifts of God through Christ. We cannot, by ourselves keep the ten commandments, but Christ can.

When this principle has bee understood and internalised, the Christian has become truly humble, and can approach God with boldness and confidence.
And isn't it strange how humility and boldness can go together, in Christ? They sure don't seem to in human behavior otherwise!
Anonymous said…
Pastor Ted,

How do we explain this in comparison to other passages such as Ephesians 5:1-2 (1) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. (2) And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. --- it looks like the original Greek implies "imitation" rather than some other translations which say "Be followers of God" (KJV) or Follow God's example" (NIV).

Are we saying "be like who God is love)" "participate in his love" in all you do? At what point does imitation turn to participation?
Ted Johnston said…
Certainly there is nothing wrong with exhorting people to imitate Christ...except when we imply that it is "from a distance" though we, left behind, are called upon to be like Jesus in his absence. Thinking of Jesus as absent, and thus now just a "moral example" for us to imitate greatly misrepresents the stunning reality that Jesus is alive and with us and through the Spirit, sharing with us his life and love, inviting us to participate in what he is doing. As in all things about the Christian life, we must begin not asking what should we do? but asking who is Jesus? and what is he doing? Then (and only then), we ask, how may we participate?--and by participating, imitate.
Tim said…
Hey Ted, I appreciate the emphasis on participation here. I have a question about your approach to reconciliation. Based on 2 Cor 5, it seems that reconciliation is a two way street. For example, Paul is imploring the Corinthians to be reconciled to God. If everyone was "already" reconciled, wouldn't that be sort of redundant on Paul's part to ask them to be reconciled to God? Granted, they were already in Christ, but the point is that reconciliation is a relational term. It requires both parties to agree to move forward in the relationship. To say that everyone has been reconciled to Christ in an objective way, in my opinion, diminishes the very nature of that objective reconciliation. It would be like posting on Facebook that you were engaged to someone who in fact you weren't. It seems a bit creepy actually when seen form that perspective. Reconciliation requires both parties to agree on entering and maintaining relationship. God of course is always open, so he does not need to be reconciled to us. We, on the other hand, have to objectively decide to participate in the relationship that he is inviting us into. If we decide not to participate in that relationship, then by definition there has has been no reconciliation between us. Thoughts?
Ted Johnston said…
Hi Tim. I think you'll find the answer to your question in my Surprising God post at At issue here is God reconciling himself to us in Christ (reconciliation on his side) vs. us, in our experience, being reconciled to God. Paul addresses both in 2 Cor. 5. The point is that God takes the initiative and does his reconciling work through Christ. The evangelistic call is that we, as humans, would in our own experience embrace that reconciliation and so "be reconciled." Read the referenced post and see what you think.