Paul’s “New Way of Life” in Imitation of Christ
I have come to realise that core to Paul’s theology is the idea of a new way of living that is in imitation of Jesus. Furthermore, it seems that Paul’s statements about this have often been misinterpreted as the idea that Paul was trying to get people to believe in Christ.
Paul’s fundamental logic is fairly basic:
Christ lived a certain way, and was vindicated by God because of it. Hence if we live in that same way then we will receive the same blessings.
Look at how Paul formulates it:
Christ was “obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God highly exalted him…” (Phil 2:8-9).
The clear implication is that if we live obediently to the point of death, God will give us similar blessings. Paul makes this explicit:
“I want to know Christ… and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil 3:10-11)
Paul’s reasoning is quite simple: If it is at all possible to get a resurrection like Christ’s then it could be obtained by living the way Christ lived. A few verses later he says:
“Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ…” (Phil 3:17-18)
How can someone live as an enemy of the cross of Christ? Simple: By having a lifestyle that is fundamentally in opposition to the lifestyle exemplified by Christ in his obedience to the point of death on a cross.
“joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:17)
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faithfulness.” (Heb 13:7)
The basic reasoning is the same: We see certain people living a certain way and receiving blessings, hence we know that if we live that same way, we’ll receive the same blessings.
“[Be diligent] so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faithfulness and patience inherit the promises.” (Heb 6:12)
Some people by their faithfulness and patience obtain blessings, so if we live like they did we will obtain blessings like they did.
“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord…. in every place your faithfulness to God has become known.” (1 Thes 6,8)
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1)
“I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.” (1 Cor 4:16)
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1)
“For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you,” (2 Thes 3:7)
Paul gave his basic principle in Romans 2:7-8, different lifestyles receive different responses from God:
“to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” (Rom 2:7-8)
The same reasoning applies with Abraham – he lived a life of faithfulness and so was justified. If we live a life like that we expect the same results.
“[Abraham is] the ancestor of all who are faithful without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faithfulness that our ancestor Abraham had.….Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who are faithful to him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Rom 4:11-12, 23-24)
If we imitate Christ’s lifestyle, if the same faithfulness is in us that was in Christ, the same obedience is in us that was in Christ, then can be said to live Christ’s life:
“It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live in the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)
We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:10-11)
“[God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” (1 Cor 1:30)
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)
We die to our old lives and live a new life that is like Christ’s was. We are “in Christ”, because we are living his life. This makes a lot of Paul’s confusing rambles about dying and living in Christ a lot clearer.
This whole notion of “equal blessings by equal lives” (if we can call it that) has been almost completely ignored by scholars. Why? I think, because it fundamentally doesn’t fit with standard Protestant theology. Why do I say this? Well, in Protestantism the basic notion is that we put our trust in Christ and His work saves us and the blessings He earned are transferred to us by some semi-magical process, and we ourselves cannot earn or achieve any blessings from our own lives. This is diametrically opposed to the notion that we should be doing the same things as Christ and thereby attaining the same level of righteousness and the same blessings. I offer that as a suggestion for why Protestant scholars for the last 400 years have been unable to understand Paul’s theology, because this central core of his thinking is heresy to them. But as anyone who has studied the early Christian writings will know, the idea of “imitation” (mimesis) and becoming Christ-like (deification) formed a huge part of their theology. They grasped this point of Paul’s thinking with bells on. (It’s not like I’m the first in history think Paul taught this… rather it took 1500 years for Christians to forget that he did.)
This concept has very powerful implications for understanding what Paul is saying in many passages, so please bear it in mind as you read. Sadly, all too often Paul’s meaning is seriously obscured because the translators have not grasped it, eg instead of translating something “you ought to have the faithfulness of Christ”, we get “you should have faith in Christ”, because they assume that Paul thinks Christ is the object of our faith rather than the exemplar of it. Several key passages of Paul often end up translated in ways I consider to be horribly wrong as a result (eg Rom 3:21-31, Gal 2:15-21, Phil 3:9 etc).