Imitation as Salvation

A central motif of Scripture, obscured by Martin Luther’s reaction to works righteousness, is the focus on imitating Christ. As Adam Koontz points out, “Luther’s confrontations with Anabaptists in the 1520s and 1530s caused him to react strongly against their urging a very literal imitation of Christ that excluded the just war tradition of Christian political thinking.”[1] The way I experienced this obscuring of imitation may be typical. It was not that the idea was ever directly dismissed, but in my seminary education the focus was on harmonizing the Gospels; rather than studying the life and teaching of Christ as a model to be imitated, the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain were relegated to the old covenant of works. In turn, “taking up the cross and following Jesus” was displaced by the notion of Jesus final payment for sin; that is, “Jesus died so that I do not have to.” Faith alone may not completely exclude the notion of imitating Christ but it is made secondary, as Luther demonstrated in his preference for the term conformitas Christi to imitatio Christi as a way of deemphasizing the Anabaptist focus.

Though imitation is central in Paul’s theology, Pauline theology (which in the Reformation is taken as the central theology of the New Testament) as interpreted through Luther and Calvin, makes very little (theologically) of the life and teaching of Christ. Focus on Christ as a sacrificial payment displaces the theological significance of the historical Jesus. It is not so much that Paul trumps Jesus, but Luther’s and Calvin’s Paul trumps the Paul focused upon the historical Jesus. “Faith alone,” penal substitution, anti-works, renders imitation of the historical Jesus secondary. For example, Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament is focused on Paul’s theology and within Paul’s theology imitation is all but dismissed.[2] In this understanding, the historical Jesus is more of a problem to be solved than a model to be followed. After all, Paul had no link with the historical Jesus and the Gospels are inconsistent and need to be harmonized in order to recover the historical Jesus.

 At a popular level, something like imitation of Jesus resurfaced in bracelets (WWJD which played off the 19th century novel by Charles Sheldon, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?). But it may have been that this reduced to a religious fad, as it was focused on an ethical decisionism (a questionable sort of ethical foundation), rather than taking the life of Christ as key to theological understanding. So too, the Anabaptist notion of a literal imitation of Christ did not set imitation within a larger theological understanding.[3] Anabaptists could read the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ other ethical teaching quite literally but Anabaptists would fall short, for example, of someone such as Thomas à Kempis whose theology is one in which imitation is the very fabric of salvation (see below).

There are the specific passages that command imitation but much of the vocabulary and theology of the New Testament presumes imitation. Walking as Christ walked, putting on the faith of Christ, taking up the cross, being in Christ, being a disciple of Christ or being part of the family of Christ is premised on imitation. The central significance of imitation is lost if Christ is primarily a payment for sin or a legal remedy obtaining imputed righteousness. But what if imitation of Christ is in fact the primary means of salvation, a salvation not merely of a future estate, but a present tense realization of “putting on Christ” and a putting off of evil? Could it be that imitating Christ is salvation, is atonement, is an ethic, is a theology?

The purpose behind the writing of the New Testament beginning with the Gospels, is that the life of Christ is a model around which his teaching and Christian teaching coheres. The incarnation, the life and death and resurrection of Christ is not primarily a doctrine, a set of propositions, or an institution, but it is a life which in its opening message calls out “follow me.” The reason for recording this life, the reason for prompting a particular ethic, or a particular understanding and doctrine, is to bring about reduplication of the life of Christ in his followers. It is his life that is being shared in the gospel message, so that imitation and participation are the very substance of salvation.

Paul’s Gospel coheres around the understanding that imitation is the mode of salvation. His suffering, his imprisonment, and his manner of life are part and parcel of the gospel he is modeling so as to be imitated: “Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life” (I Tim. 1:16). Bad models and rivalrous imitation looms in many of Paul’s letters. As I previously described it (here), to the rivalry prone lovers of hierarchy and false power in Corinth, Paul has a singular recommendation and resolution: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1). The danger is that they would create a scandal of imitation gone bad: “Give no offense [do not become a scandal] to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1). To be saved, is to imitate Christ.  

Where Paul has been present, he can simply appeal to himself as the model, but as in Ephesians the model is God revealed in Christ: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph 5:1–2). This appeal to imitate God comes after specific descriptions of what imitation will entail: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32). The appeal throughout Ephesians is that being members of one another in Christ entails adapting his form of life: “if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self” (Eph. 4:21-22). Even and especially the most intimate of relationships is to be carried out in imitation of Christ: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).

In what is considered to be one of his earliest letters, Paul explains that the Thessalonians have come to have hope in Christ through imitation and that they are spreading the Gospel as others imitate them: “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (I Thess. 1:6). The imitation of the Lord, and of Paul, and then of the Thessalonians is the way one enters into the “power” of the Holy Spirit and the “conviction” of the gospel (1:5). Imitation is the way the gospel spreads as becoming imitators of Christ and the apostles is the way one receives the gospel – it could hardly be otherwise. Imitation is a sign of election and is the way the Gospel works “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit” (1:5). Imitation takes up the suffering of Christ but also the joy this entails (1:6). Paul describes his imparting of the gospel as a giving of his own life: “Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives” (2:8). The life of Christ in the life of Paul is the very means of providing sustenance, just as a “nursing mother” imparts sustenance and her own life to her children (2:7).

The way the gospel is taken up and the way that discipleship continues is through imitation of a model: “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you . . . but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example” (2 Thess. 3:7-9). This is what it means to “hold to the traditions” and this is the point of being taught, whether verbally or in writing. It coheres as a model to be imitated, resulting in “good work” (2 Th 2:15–3:1). Tradition and gospel and rule of faith contain a living model, a life that is to be shared through imitation. Apart from imitating the life thus conveyed, there is no gospel, no tradition and no faith.

Each of Paul’s letters is premised on imitation, but perhaps none more so than Philippians. The irony is that in interpreting Philippians, if it is not understood that both Paul and Christ are models to be imitated then the very substance of what Christ has done is obscured. That is the entire movement of Christ is not a one-off payment but is meant to be a manner of life: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php. 2:5–8).

If we imagine Paul is describing Christ’s movement from his preincarnate state to the incarnation, this is hardly something we can imitate. As James McClendon describes it, “Hence, the dominant feature of 2:5-11 has never been a heavenly-descent myth, for it is not a passage about the pre-incarnate acts of God, but one that juxtaposes Messiah Jesus’ earthly vicissitudes with the vast claim of his Lordship – on earth, but also in heaven and over the nether world.”[4] Jesus’ refusal to grasp equality with God must refer to the temptation in his incarnation, a temptation we experience and resist through imitating Christ. Paul’s premise throughout is to encourage imitation as a means of discipleship: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Php. 3:17). Jesus is the primary model, the pattern which Paul has also modeled.

Christ’s Lordship is established through his suffering and death on the cross and this is the pattern that is to be imitated. His manner of life, his humility, his suffering, and his death, is the archetypical pattern and not simply a one-off payment which cannot be replicated.  The “image of God” which he models and which the first pair and their progeny failed to live up to is not some “designated state but a task set, not an ontic level enjoyed but an ideal to be realized.”[5] The path of servitude and suffering is the model of the divine image Christ modeled and which his disciples imitate.

The conclusion: it is his life that is being shared in the gospel message, so that imitation and participation are the very substance of salvation. Apart from imitating the life thus conveyed, there is no gospel, no tradition and no faith. On this basis, Thomas à Kempis opens his book The Imitation of Christ, urging a focus on the study of the life of Christ as the means to imitate his life and attain to his understanding: “’HE WHO follows Me, walks not in darkness,’ says the Lord. By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart. Let our chief effort; therefore, be to study the life of Jesus Christ.”[6]



[1] Adam C. Koontz, The Imitation of Paul in the Greco-Roman World (Unpublished Dissertation, Temple University, 2020) 10.

[2] Ibid, 3.

[3] There was a move toward a Christus Victor reading of the atonement but this did not displace penal substitution among Anabaptists.

[4] James McClendon, Doctrine: Systematic Theology Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994) 267.

[5] McClendon, 268.

[6] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (The Catholic Primer, 2004).


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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