Imitatio Christi – Latin for WWJD

For Israel, the outworking of the doctrine of God’s sovereignty was that they were called to live according to the pattern that God had laid down, and to trust that he was caring for them. In the Servant Songs, Isaiah introduced the concept of the Suffering Servant, the one truly faithful servant of God who brings about justice through his suffering. Of course Jesus was the fulfillment of this prophecy. Throughout his ministry, he suffered various forms of resistance, which culminated in his arrest, mocking, rejection and crucifixion. Yet, he never resisted his oppressors. ‘Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth.’ (Isa 53:8) As part of the body of Christ who are united to him in the Spirit, Christians must take this example seriously.

However, a strictly imitatio Christi (imitation of Christ) ethical framework faces the problem of discerning what aspects of Jesus’ ministry were a template for his followers – as the perfect man – and which are unique to his salvific mission – as the incarnation of God. For example, Jesus’ death was a one-off expression of God’s judgment. When Israel was unfaithful, God regularly expressed his sovereignty by bring affliction upon them. Jesus’ death fulfilled this when he suffered faithfully for a faithless people. Some argue that the only reason Jesus did not resist his persecution was because it was necessary for him to undergo this judgment for our sake. Thus Christians are not directed to follow this example. Yoder has responded to this argument by questioning the validity of the penal substitutionary atonement model.

Neither response is correct. Jesus’ death truly was a one-off substitutionary sacrifice. However, it is wrong to claim that the nature of living in the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with the means by which is was inaugurated. In 1 Corinthians, Paul makes the point that he has modeled his public speaking on the weakness and foolishness of the cross (1 Cor 2:1-5). Throughout the epistle, Paul expounds the ethic of the cross as he encourages the Corinthians: ‘Be imitators of me, as I also am of Christ’ (1 Cor 11:1). Jesus’ dual nature requires more sophistication in determining which aspects of his life are examples to be imitated. The best starting point is to consider the commands that he gave his followers, and the example of their lives as they lived the ethic of the Kingdom.

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