Recently I’ve been spending time in self-examination. We are told in 2 Corinthians 13:5 to do just that. To examine and test ourselves to see that we are in the faith. I think it is healthy as a Christian to make sure we do this regularly to avoid running of track, thinking we’re living a certain life we proclaim with our lips but are falling short with our actions. Since I’ve been doing this it has caused me to ask some hard questions as to what it looks like to truly emulate Christ. The answer to that question can be deduced from looking at the life of Christ albeit many times that isn’t what we as Christians do. We typically say we look at Christ for the answer but I believe what many of us end up doing, myself included, is mirroring our character with the results of sanctification. We look for a list of moral character types and judge our Christ-likeness against them and them alone. It then becomes a multiple choice test based on activity in sin and sinful character type. Am I joyful? Am I forgiving? Am I running head-first into sin? Do I love my neighbor? Do I have peace? Am I kind? Is God first in my life? Have I avoided looking at porn lately? Did I give up drinking with my friends? On and on it goes. We then make the mistake in thinking that somehow, our diminishing of sin, that is a result of sanctification, is somehow going to put Jesus Christ on display to the world. We then wipe our hands clean as if we’ve passed the test, doing all that is required of us. This is where it starts to get hard because I firmly believe it is naive of us to think we put Jesus on display just by focusing on our character type alone or some measurement of sin. I believe we can deceive ourselves if we think we are looking like Christ, a mirror image, just because our sin list has shortened.
Concerning ourselves with the Christian checklist of sins should not be the goal. In fact the goal is to fully emulate Christ while carrying out the Great Commission, which is not optional. The question should not revolve around being Christian but rather being like Jesus. That causes us to start with examining Jesus and not the Christian faith. This keeps us from the possibility of focusing on traditions or customs within the church. So then the better question is, how do I look like Jesus? From that we are forced to ask, “Do I even look like Jesus?”.
This is where it becomes tough to self-examine because it forces us out of our narrow view of who Jesus was and what He did while on the earth. It forces us to check ourselves against the totality of Jesus and not just the one part that makes us comfortable or is easy for us to grasp like the philanthropic side of Jesus. The divine nature of Jesus prevented Him from sinning. Jesus was God in the flesh and could not sin. However, His nature is not what saved us. You wouldn’t know this by how much the topic of living holy is correlated to presenting Jesus to the world in today’s church. Now, don’t check out here because if you do you’re going to completely miss the point. I’m certainly not saying we should overlook preaching sin every moment we get or that we should abuse the gift of grace by living in sin. Scripture makes this clear we are not to do this.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” – Romans 6:1–2
What I am saying, is that if we think we are somehow being more like Jesus and even presenting Jesus to the world simply by deducing the amount of sin we partake in, we’ve missed the big picture. Let’s look at why.
1. Other Religions
It is easy to get trapped in the Christian bubble and think every other religion doesn’t place an emphasis on not living in sin. Jews focus on avoiding sin and they believe in repentance. Muslims believe in what is called the Major Sins and Minor Sins. Major sins demand legal punishment where minor ones don’t. Muslims are to avoid falling victim to minor sins which could lead one from the faith. Buddhists and Hindus also believe in living in a righteous or holy lifestyle. Mahatma Ghandi was proclaimed to be one of the world’s best philanthropists. What about Mormons? Have you ever met a Mormon? They are one of the cleanest people you will ever meet. They make every effort to welcome new converts into the fold, avoid confrontation, they’re extremely nice to where it is scary and they are very, very giving. Now the big difference is these systems are all works based systems and not graced based. They all cause the follower to work hard in an attempt to earn righteousness and eternal salvation while the Christian is under grace. But the point I want to drive home is that the absence of sin in our lives should not be the sole standard of measurement we use to validate if we are living like Jesus. Mormons are some of the nicest, kindest people you will ever meet but they don’t have the right Jesus. Focusing solely on our checklist of sinful acts or sinful character types can be deceiving.
2. The Abnormal Death of Christ
The character of Jesus as it pertains to the absence of sin in Him, is not what saved us. In fact, if Jesus simply came to this earth, never sinned, exhibited the greatest of personalities being the kindest person on earth and died a normal death, we would all be destined for Hell. Jesus didn’t die a normal death. The Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t hate Jesus because He was sinless or because He was a kind philanthropist. Jesus wasn’t crucified because of His abstaining from sin. We are not saved in Christ because He was kind to His neighbors.
Sanctification and the Holy Spirit
Scripture makes it clear that it is the work of God through the Holy Spirit that we are cleansed from unrighteousness.
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” – 1 Corinthians 6:11
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:23
“for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” – Philippians 2:13
It is important to point this out as it can become easy to start thinking our sanctification is of our own effort. We pull out the checklist of all the things we need to not do and start gauging our salvation upon how many things we’ve checked off the list. We begin to think that because we’re not committing a certain amount of sins that Jesus is now somehow more on display and that others will come to know Him because we’re such kind and morally sound people. Now, we certainly have a responsibility to abstain from sin best we can. Again, this is not a free-pass to sin. However let’s not short the work of the Holy Spirit. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies us daily, making us new creatures so that we may be able to abstain from sin in the first place. The Holy Spirit is what gives us the ability to wage war on our flesh. Without the Holy Spirit we are dead in our sins.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul urges the Thessalonians to abstain from sexual immorality, pointing out that their sanctification is tied to the will of God.
“For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;” – 1 Thessalonians 4:3–5
What is so amazing, is that God has given us the means, which is the Holy Spirit, so we can abstain from sin. God did not forget us once Christ ascended to Heaven. He gave us a helper which is the Spirit. Our ability to abstain, our willingness to fight the flesh to become more Holy, is the result of God’s work in us. It is important to realize this.
One thing that I’ve learned in my walk with Christ is that this process of sanctification takes time. Some sins may seem easy to defeat and others, just impossible. If we’re honest, we can all attest to this. This is why it can be deceiving if we just assume we’re being “Christ-like” or are displaying Christ simply because our sin count is lowered. All sin, is sin. You may have 100 sins checked off the list, but are you sure you’re not displaying that one sin that is turning people away from Christ?
What we’re left with, is that there must be more to being a mirror image of Christ than abstaining from sin. We can certainly say though, that if we are living in sin, abusing grace, lacking the will to abstain from sin, that we certainly do not look like or abide in Christ. Christ, in this case, will certainly not be on display. I believe we should not get into a mindset of thinking our job is done as Christians because we act a certain way or because we don’t sin as much as someone else.
I believe we need to realize that living holy is simply one component of what it means to be an image bearer of Christ. There is more to being like Christ than abstaining from sin, avoiding sexual impurity and being the kindest most philanthropic neighbor on the planet. In the next article we will see if we can challenge ourselves a bit more in discovering just how set apart we are to be in Christ.