By Rick Barker
A common teaching about salvation is that Christ is our forgiveness as well as our example for how to live a righteous, law-abiding, life. This teaching presumes that a righteous life is necessary for our salvation yet confusingly insists that it is not our works that save us. The explanation for this contradictory assertion is that we do not rely on our works but on Christ’s work within us to empower us to follow the example of Christ’s life.
Is this confusion about works what Scripture really teaches about Christ as our example? We will address this question by examining the Scriptural passages that say we should imitate Christ or that He is our example.
For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps (1 Pet. 2:20-21).
This passage is certainly not about salvation, nor is it about how we learn to become righteous or to resist temptation. Rather, the “example” that we have in this passage is the example of suffering. When Christians suffer for doing what is right, they can look to Christ for comfort in His example of suffering for us. Peter even suggests that we were called to suffer patiently for His sake. In fact, the idea that the gospel is health, wealth, and happiness is directly contrary to the purpose discussed here.
Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1).
Here we are asked to imitate Paul who is acting like Christ—a command that again points us to the concept of Christ being our example. Again, this command is not explaining how to overcome sin. Instead, Paul is explaining how to glorify God by putting others ahead of oneself. In fact, the message in this text is comparable to the next one on the list:
You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you (Jn. 15:13-15).
So, what is the example Jesus is asking us to follow here? Adventists concluded it was the act of washing the feet. I believe Jesus’ command was the same as the teaching of 1 Corinthians 10, that we should follow Christ’s example in serving others, in putting others before ourselves. Again, this command to follow Jesus’ example doesn’t address overcoming sins, resisting temptations, or following the law.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. 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. 4:32-5:2).
This “example” is consistent with the theme we have seen in the preceding verses. Christ loved us and died to provide our forgiveness; therefore, we should be loving and forgiving of one another.
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 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. 1:15-17).
I hope we notice something crucial here. Paul calls himself the foremost of sinners—not that he used to be the foremost of sinners, but that he “is” foremost of all. Now, I certainly don’t think Paul lived a licentious lifestyle. Instead, I would contend that Paul had a better understanding of what God’s holiness truly is and understood the gap between his life and God’s standard. What Paul is emphasizing here is Christ’s patient forgiveness of believers. In seeing the example of God forgiving other sinners, even great sinners, we can find assurance of our own forgiveness. In this last case, we are looking at the example of Christ’s action towards others not as something we are seeking to imitate, but as the evidence that sinners receive eternal life through belief in Him.
None of these passages suggest or even hint at the idea of Christ’s life providing a blueprint to follow for overcoming sin. Instead, Christ’s life is used to teach the attitudes believers should have regarding selflessness, suffering, and forgiveness. This understanding of Christ being believers’ example of godly living is quite different from the claims that Christ is our example leading to salvation. †
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