Should we tell Christians to be “good?” Can we identify a “good’ Christian and should we point out that Christian as a role model to be imitated? Recently I have read several thoughtful pieces that have answered this question with resounding, “No” (including, among others, http://allbeggars.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-good-chrisitan.html and http://confessionalgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/04/i-am-simulist.html?spref=fb). Writers like this have been approaching the question from a profound dogmatic perspective in which they have rightly emphasized the impact of sin and the fact that Christ alone is the reason that we are righteous before God. When viewed from the perspective of justification they have correctly noted that pointing to what must be done sets a person on the path of the Law – a path that can never bring salvation or peace.
Yet is this the only way to look at the question and is it the only valid answer? Based on the New Testament and the Lutheran Confessions the answer to these questions must also be, “No.” While these dogmatic truths must remain the primary grounding, in the mystery of the relation between old man and new man in the baptized Christian, there is room for other homiletical and pastoral approaches as well.
Paul uses this approach twice in 1 Corinthians, where in fact he holds up himself as the model to be imitated. He says, “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:14-17).
Likewise, he brings his discussion about Christian life in relation to various aspects of pagan temples and meals by writing, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33-11:1).
In a similar manner, Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-7).
In 1 Cor 11:1 Paul places primacy on Christ as the model to be imitated. His own example is derivative and we can presume the same idea is contained in 1 Thess 1:6. But what must be noted is that Paul and those with him are held up as good examples. In a similar fashion Paul praises the Thessalonians are imitating other Christians when he says, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
This is not a theme that is only found in Paul. Hebrews holds up Christian leaders as models to be imitated when it says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (13:7). And like Paul, Hebrews also sets forth other believers as models to be imitated: “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:10-12).
It does not seem possible to avoid the conclusion that the New Testament holds up Christians as good examples to be imitated. This does not require a denial of the truth that they are sinners who are righteous only because they are in Christ through baptism and faith. Rather it indicates that at the level of the way Christians live we can identify good, faithful conduct. Certainly Paul described this with great frequency (see my post, “Would Paul want pastors to preach and teach about good works?”; http://surburg.blogspot.com/2013/03/would-paul-want-pastors-to-preach-and.html). And beyond this mere identification, we find the biblical truth that it is helpful to identify and imitate these models.
Because the Scriptures speak this way, the Lutheran Confessions do as well. While rejecting all the abuses that deny the doctrine of justification, the Confessions retain a place for the saints in the life of the Church. Augsburg Confession XXI.1states, “Concerning the cult of the saints they teach that saints may be remembered in order that we imitate their faith and good works, according to our calling” (Latin text). Within the more extended treatment of the issue in Apology XXI, the Confessions indicates regarding the honor given to the saints, “The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings” (XXI.6).
There is a tendency within the Lutheran church – and in many other churches as well that have a strong doctrinal basis - for dogmatic theology to become the dominant force in the Church’s thought and life. This is understandable and is, in some ways, necessary. There is the need to pull together the witness of Scripture into statements that summarize the teaching and enable the Church to teach it clearly. Yet the more refined dogmatic theology becomes the greater the danger that those using it may lose sight of the way it summarizes and systematizes; the greater the danger that we may lose sight of what Scripture actually does say and the language it uses. And for this reason it is always the task of exegesis to remind the Church about what Scripture actually does say and the way Scripture says it. This will never be as neat and tidy as dogmatic theology. But because it is God’s Word it will be true. And because Scripture occurred first as preaching and teaching for Christians before it ever became the topic for theological reflection, it will never cease to be useful for the pastor who preaches to and teaches the baptized.