I remember vividly the major question that perplexed me (and my friends) as a young Christian. It was this: What is God’s purpose for His people? Granted we had been converted, but what next?
Of course we knew the famous statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” We also toyed with a yet briefer statement of only five words such as “love God, love your neighbor.”
But neither seemed wholly satisfactory. So I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth. It is this: God wants His people to become like Christ, for Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.
The Biblical Basis of the Call to Christlikeness
The biblical basis for the call to Christlikeness consists of three texts which we will do well to hold together: Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 1 John 3:2.
The first is Romans 8:29: God has “predestined [His people] to be conformed to the image of his Son.” When Adam fell, he lost much, though not all, of the divine image in which he had been created. But God has restored it in Christ. Conformity to the image of God means to be like Jesus, and Christlikeness is the eternal predestinating purpose of God.
The second text is 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate [or reflect] the Lord’s glory, are being transformed [or changed] into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” The perspective has changed—from the past to the present; from God’s eternal predestination to His present transformation of us by His Holy Spirit; from God’s eternal purpose to make us like Christ, to His historical work by His Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ.
The third text is 1 John 3:2: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” And if God is working to this end, it is no wonder He calls us to cooperate with Him. “Follow me,” He says. “Imitate me.”
We don’t know in any detail what we shall be, but we do know that we will be like Christ. And there’s really no need for us to know any more. We are content with the glorious truth that we will be with Christ and like Christ.
Here then are three perspectives (past, present and future) that are all pointing in the same direction: God’s eternal purpose (we have been predestined), God’s historical purpose (we are being changed, transformed by the Holy Spirit), and God’s final eschatological purpose (we will be like Him). These all combine toward the same end—Christlikeness, for Christlikeness is the purpose of God for the people of God.
I want now to move on to illustrate this truth with a number of New Testament examples. But first, a general statement from 1 John 2:6: “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” If we claim to be Christian, we must be like Christ.
Some New Testament Examples
We are to be like Christ in His incarnation. Some may immediately recoil with horror from such an idea. “Surely,” you may say, “the incarnation was an altogether unique event and cannot be imitated.”
The answer is yes and no. It is yes in the sense that the Son of God took our humanity to Himself in Jesus of Nazareth, once and for all and never to be repeated, but no in the sense that we are all called to follow the example of His great humanity. So Paul could write in Philippians 2:5-8:
“Have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
We are to be like Christ in His service. Come with me to the upper room where He spent His last evening with His disciples. During supper He took off His outer garments, tied a towel around Him, poured water into a basin and washed His disciples’ feet. When He had finished, He resumed His place and said: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15).
Just as Jesus performed what in His culture was the work of a slave, so we in our cultures must regard no task too menial or degrading to undertake.
We are to be like Christ in His love. As Paul wrote: “Live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2, NIV). To “live a life of love” is a command that all our behavior should be characterized by love, but “gave himself” for us is a clear reference to the cross. So Paul is urging us to be like Christ in His death, to love with Calvary love.
Do you see what is happening? Paul is urging us to be like the Christ of the incarnation, the Christ of the foot washing and the Christ of the cross. These events in the life of Christ indicate clearly what Christlikeness means in practice.
We are to be like Christ in His patient endurance. In this next example we consider the teaching of Peter. Every chapter of Peter’s first letter contains an allusion to suffering for Christ, for the background of the letter is the beginnings of persecution. In chapter two, in particular, Peter urges Christian slaves—if punished unjustly—to bear it, not to repay evil for evil (1 Peter 2:18).
We have been called to suffering because Christ also suffered, leaving us an example so that we may follow in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). This call to Christlikeness in suffering unjustly may well become increasingly relevant as persecution increases in many cultures today.
We are to be like Christ in His mission. In prayer, Jesus said to His Father, “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18); and in commissioning, He said, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21).
These words are immensely significant. This is not just the version of the Great Commission recorded in John’s Gospel, it is also an instruction that their mission in the world was to resemble Christ’s. In what respect? The key words are “sent into the world.” That is, as Christ had to enter our world, so we are to enter other people’s worlds.
It was eloquently explained by Archbishop Michael Ramsey when he said: “We state and commend the faith only in so far as we go out and put ourselves inside the doubts of the doubters, the questions of the questioners and the loneliness of those who have lost their way.”
This entering into other people’s worlds is exactly what we mean by incarnational mission, and all authentic mission is incarnational. We are to be like Christ in His mission.
Here then are perhaps the five main ways in which we are to be Christlike: we are to be like Christ in His incarnation, in His service, in His love, in His endurance and in His mission.
Three Practical Consequences
We conclude now with three practical consequences of the basis and examples for Christlikeness that we have considered.
Christlikeness and the mystery of suffering. Suffering is part of God’s process of making us like Christ. Whether it is a disappointment or a frustration, we need to try to see it in the light of Romans 8:28-29. According to Romans 8:28, God is always working for the good purpose of His people, and according to Romans 8:29, this good purpose is to make us like Christ.
Christlikeness and the challenge of evangelism. Why is it that our evangelistic efforts are often fraught with failure? One main reason is that we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A Hindu professor, identifying one of his students as a Christian, once said, “If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow.”
Christlikeness and the indwelling of the Spirit. I have spoken much about Christlikeness, but how is it possible for us? In our own strength, it is clearly not, but God has given us His Holy Spirit to enable us to fulfill His purpose. William Temple used to illustrate the point this way:
“It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it; I can’t. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like his. And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like His.”
God’s purpose is to make us like Christ, and God’s way is to fill us with His Holy Spirit.
John Stott served for many years as rector of All Souls Church in London and participated with Billy Graham in such events as the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization and Mr. Graham’s Amsterdam Conferences on evangelism. He has written many books, and he says that at age 88, with the completion of “The Radical Disciple,” he now lays down his pen for the last time.