Christians throughout the world recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The pageantry included a calendar full of conferences and the proliferation of new books, articles, blog posts, t-shirts and other paraphernalia. The occasion generated significant enthusiasm, as Christian masses responded with amazement at the spiritual achievements of the 16th century. But did all this attention spark a fresh biblical reformation, one similar to the radical changes that engulfed the world five centuries ago? After all the fanfare, the lasting impact appears negligible. Admiration did not produce imitation.
The testimony of faithful “worthies” from the past thrills the soul of the believer. Men marvel at the earnest prayers, biblical insight, and gospel productivity of previous generations. Hearts warm while fingering through the golden pages of a weighty work of divinity or a biography depicting eminent piety. However satisfying, very few rise from such encounters with holy resolve and humble dependence on God to follow these believers of old. A great gulf exists between admiration and imitation. Crowds pack large auditoriums to sit spellbound before a concert violinist. But how many will devote the time and sacrifice to becoming a virtuoso themselves? The answer is visible in the lone figure on the stage and the countless numbers in their seats. In the history of the church, the difference between imitators and mere admirers reflects similar proportions.
The believer delights to ponder more hours spent in prayer, more devoted service, and deeper draughts from the cup of concentrated study – all to be accomplished sometime in the future. But unless these ambitions impact what we do in the moment at hand, they will remain empty dreaming. Bunyan was not born with blood that was “bibline,” and M’Cheyne’s prayers did not come with the wave of a wand. As long as the flesh exerts the greater weight of influence, it will be easier to run to our computer than to our closet. Once in the closet, it will be less demanding to rush through a formal prayer than to actually wrestle in prayer. Racing through a daily Scripture portion will come more readily than the ardor of rolling up our sleeves and digging, searching, memorizing, and meditating. Grand thoughts conjured up on pillows of ease contribute to the problem. It pleases us to admire. But do we please Christ and rise to follow him? We must do now, or we will never do in that infamous then.
The Apostle Paul urged his spiritual children: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). He insisted on the necessity of imitation, not just admiration. Paul’s life exemplified an internal warfare characterized by self-control and bodily subjection that enabled him to run in pursuit of the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27). He challenged Timothy to study, to endure hardship, and to give himself wholly to spiritual exercise. In turn, Timothy was to exhort other faithful men to do the same (2 Tim. 2:2). This defies the idolatry of self-seeking gratification, the choice to please ourselves in leisure rather than our Lord in labor. Diligence driven by discipline often proves painful. But the fear of God motivates true holiness (Col. 3:22ff) and daily cross-bearing (Mk. 8:34). The Christian, under the all-seeing eye of God, cannot be content with knowing but not doing.
Every genuine Christian asks: How do I obtain this? It cannot be reduced to the Stoic manipulation of the soul or the dutiful tracing of a pattern outlined in Scripture. Love is the motivating force that refuses to please ourselves in rest rather than our Lord in action (2 Cor. 5:14, 15; Mt. 12:50). Love animates the soul (Mt. 22:37; Col. 3:23). Notice how easily excited and motivated a person becomes by the small objects that they love. Divine love powerfully affects the heart. We derive spiritual energy from communion with the living Christ who transforms us into his image (2 Cor. 3:18). Unless Christ fills our heart, we will be as a sail without wind. He alone is “chief among ten thousand.” Greater love for Christ produces increased love for following him – wherever that path leads and whatever daily crosses that includes. Glorying in his cross lies behind discovering for oneself the treasures previous saints have enjoyed (Gal. 6:14). Walking closely in fellowship with the Lord constitutes the means toward this end. We will imitate most those we know best. Thus the injunction “looking unto Jesus” always undergirds the corollary “be ye holy as I am holy.”
Admiration for Christ yields adoration. We begin by beholding our glorious King in the beauty of his holiness. Then as we esteem his holiness visibly manifested in his most faithful followers, we will discover sound patterns to emulate. A focus, however, that fails to look past every human example to Christ will never edify (Eph. 5:1).
We cannot tread this road by simply studying the map produced by others – but rather by confirming the course ourselves in the steps we take each moment of the day. Merely celebrating the accomplishments of the past will prove inadequate to move us one inch toward our final destination. Only those of the next generation who actually follow their Forerunner and travel his well-beaten path – the highway of holiness – can joyously anticipate his commendation and welcome: “Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Mt. 25:23).
True admiration will produce imitation.