Christians are to Imitate God by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Darkness and Light” published in 1982.
`Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour.’
Here in this new chapter we come to what is perhaps Paul’s supreme argument, to the highest level of all in doctrine and in practice, to the ultimate ideal. There is nothing possible beyond this. This is the highest statement of Christian doctrine that one can conceive of or even imagine. It is really staggering, it is almost incredible; but here it is. `Be ye followers of God’! It would be interesting, from the mere standpoint of mechanics, to know whether this injunction belongs to the previous section of the Epistle or to the one that follows. Frankly, I cannot make up my mind, I really believe it belongs to both. It is partly suggested, I think, by what Paul said at the end of chapter 4: `Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. Be ye therefore followers of God.’ And yet the good men who divided up this letter into chapters ended chapter 4 and started this new section in chapter 5, and I believe there is a great deal to be said for that also; for here Paul seems to me to be laying down what is after all a principle that governs everything; he is gathering up his message as it were; and then he will proceed to draw his practical deductions in verses 3 to 5. But the point is that the Apostle is here reminding us of something that we must never forget in the whole of our lives, all our thinking, all our conduct and practice and behaviour. `Be ye followers of God, as dear children’! Now then, what does this mean?
Well, you notice first of all that again he is introducing us to a principle of doctrine. In this most practical section where he is dealing with the most ordinary things in life, suddenly he throws in this. That is why these Epistles are so romantic if you study them properly. You may say to yourself, Oh well, I have finished with my doctrine at the end of chapter 3, I can then go on to something else! But you cannot! You have not finished with doctrine. He cannot talk about anything except in terms of the truth, and so suddenly, you see, when he is dealing with the most practical things in life, he suddenly hurls this upon us and we stand before the most staggering and astonishing statement that we can ever face. What is it? Well, let us look at it.
`Be ye therefore followers of God’. A better translation is desirable, for the word followers does not bring out the meaning as it should. The Apostle really says: `Become imitators of God’, indeed `Become mimics of God’. Our word mimic comes from the very word the Apostle used. We are to mimic God, we are to imitate God. Is this possible? Is not this gross exaggeration? Has not the Apostle run away with himself, and allowed his eloquence to dazzle him? Is he seriously asking men and women like ourselves, living in a world like this, surrounded by temptations, harassed by the devil, with sin and evil and unworthiness within us, to be `imitators of God’? Is it possible? A question like this must have an answer, and I suggest we approach it in this way. We must look at God and consider His being and nature. If I am to imitate God I must know something about Him. And, thank God, He has been graciously pleased to reveal Himself to us. He does it in His Word. We see it in the Lord Jesus Christ. And we are entitled, therefore, to say that there are certain attributes of God which can be divided into two groups. There are attributes of God that are not communicable, certain things that pertain to God that are true only of Him, and we cannot imitate Him in those respects. For instance, His Glory! We cannot imitate the glory of God! His eternity! He is from eternity, to eternity; He is everlasting. That is an attribute of God. We cannot imitate that. His majesty! Who would be so foolish as to try to imitate the majesty of God! Add to these His omnipotence, His omnipresence, His omniscience. They are attributes of God, yes, but they are incommunicable, they belong to God alone, and they make God God. They are in God because He is God, and we are never called upon anywhere to imitate the incommunicable attributes!
But there are other attributes in God which are communicable. They are communicable because they are moral in their nature. These are the ones that we must understand if we are truly to follow our text. What are they? Holiness! `Be ye holy’, says God, `for I am holy’; that is to say, `Be ye holy because I am holy’. This is communicable, this is something that I am to imitate. As God is holy, I am to be holy. Righteousness! God is righteous—and believers are to be righteous. His justice! His goodness! His love! His mercy! His compassion! His tenderness! His longsuffering! His lovingkindness! His faithfulness! His forgiveness! All these are communicable attributes of God, and we are expected to manifest them, we are to have them, we are to show them, they are to be parts of our life and living.
`Be ye therefore imitators of God’, says the Apostle. Become imitators, mimics, of God. In what respect? In respect of these communicable attributes! We are not just to be good people, we are to be imitators of God! `Be ye imitators of God’! Here is the appeal; and we only realise its greatness, and value, and its staggering character as we realise the biblical teaching about the being and the nature of God, and these two types of attributes.
But why are we to be imitators of God? Why are we in these respects to be in our daily lives as God is? It is first and foremost because we are God’s children. `Be ye therefore imitators … as dear children’. Here once more we enter into a realm that is altogether different from what the world knows, and again the Apostle’s argument compels me to repeat what I have often emphasised; I mean the essential difference between Christianity and mere morality. Some of the most unchristian people in the world today are men and women who are living upright and moral lives and are satisfied with themselves and think that that is the acme. That, I say, is the opposite of Christianity, it is goodness for the sake of goodness. They are very good people, I know, but the Apostle’s teaching is a thing about which they know nothing at all. It is because we are children of God that we are to refrain from some things and to do others. The Apostle, of course, has already been reminding us of this; it is not a new idea that he suddenly introduces here. We saw it at the very beginning of the Epistle: `Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: according as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: having predestinated us’—to what? —‘unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’. This is echoed in the second chapter where we read: `Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God’—children of God! adopted into the household and family of God, belonging to God, related to God!
If we do not understand this we are missing the whole point of the Christian message and we will never understand this appeal for conduct and behaviour. As Christians we are not merely believers; we are believers; you cannot be Christians without believing; but the Christian is not merely one who has believed a certain body of doctrine. Nor, as Christians, are we merely forgiven. We are forgiven, thank God; there would be no hope for us if we were not forgiven. But Christianity is more than forgiveness. Neither does being a Christian stop at the rebirth, glorious though that is. We must go beyond that, for what does our rebirth mean? It means rebirth after the pattern and the image of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. We have already been looking at this in chapter 4: `Put on the new man’, Paul says, `which after God is created in righteousness and holiness of the truth’. The Christian is a child of God. He has been adopted into God’s family. He is a partaker of the divine nature. He is born from above, he is born of the Spirit! And, of course, the trouble with those who object to living the Christian life is that they have no conception of such a blessing as this; they have never seen it at all, they are quite unaware of it, they think of Christianity as a moral code imposed upon them, and they resent it. Poor things! They are just ignorant of Christianity! Here is the reason for living the Christian life. We are to be imitators of God because we are children of God! God’s people! That is what Christianity means.
But not only are we His children, we are His dear children! Or—a better translation—children beloved. The Apostle assures us that we are not only children of God in the sense that we are in that actual legal relationship; we are children beloved, He has shown His love toward us and He goes on doing so, He shows His care for us, His solicitude for us. Do you know, that if you are a true Christian you are dear to God? I have the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ for saying this. The very hairs of your head are all numbered! God knows His children one by one, He is interested in us; the analogy is a human one, but we can multiply it by infinity. God’s interest in and concern for His children is infinitely greater than the greatest and the noblest natural parent’s interest in his or her child. God is lovingly concerned about us. He watches us just as the natural parent watches his little child beginning to walk for the first time, or as the child goes out to school for the first time. He stands at the gate and watches him as he goes round the corner and out of sight; that is an expression of loving interest. It is not a mechanical relationship; children are dear, children are beloved! And, says Paul, that is God’s relationship to us; He has looked down upon us, and He loves us; He is interested in us, we are dear to His heart, He is taking an intense personal interest in us.
What, then, is to be our response to God’s love? Quite inevitably, if I believe and realise something of this truth, the greatest desire of my life should be to show my love to Him, and to please Him in everything. Nothing gives God greater joy—I say it on the authority of my text, and on all the parallel texts in the Scriptures—than to see His children living in a manner that is worthy of Him. So if we are children worthy of the name, our supreme desire in life should be to please Him and to give Him joy. We are told that there is joy among the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth, and that joy is also in the heart of God as His children live in a manner that is worthy of Him. `Become imitators of God, as children beloved’!
Again, if we realise the truth of this relationship, our greatest desire in life will be to be like God. Look at a little boy who loves his father and knows his father’s love to him; his great desire is to be like his father; He likes to sit in his father’s chair; likes to take his father’s place; tries to walk like his father; tries to speak like his father! He is imitating his father the whole time. He wants to grow up to be a man like his father! That is human nature, is it not? That is ordinary human love at its best. Again, I say, cleanse it, multiply it by infinity, and you discover what the Apostle is telling us to do. `Become imitators of God’—why?—because He is your Father!
And then another deduction. The honour of the family is in our hands. That is true of us always as children in a family. We are representatives of the family, and as people look at us they not only judge us, they judge our families. That is why we are all so careful to tell our children to behave themselves when they go out to a little party. We know that it is not the children who are going to be criticised, but the parents. The child is the representative of the family, and therefore he should not be thinking of himself so much as of the family. `No man liveth unto himself’, says Paul to the Roman believers, `no man dieth unto himself’. To his Lord every man stands. And we, if we are Christians, cannot divorce ourselves from our relationship to God. We cannot say, I want to be saved, I don’t want to go to hell, I want to be forgiven, but I don’t want this Christian life; I want to have a good time in such-and-such a place, and I want to go into this, that and the other. But you must not argue like that if you are a Christian; if you are a child of God you are a member of the family, and what matters is the honour of the family, not what you want and like. These things operate as principles in human relationships, how much more so here—`Becomes imitators of God’!
Surely, the privilege of belonging to such a family even while we are yet in this world as it is, round and about us, with all its sin and its shame and its muddle and its agony, should move and animate us. Is there a greater privilege than being a Christian? Can you mention to me anything in this world that is comparable to the fact that we are children of God, that we belong to His family, the household of God? We are not at home in this world; our citizenship is in heaven; we belong there; He leaves us in this world of time for a while, and the world is antagonistic, it is hateful and sinful. But we have been called out of its darkness, we have been taken out of the kingdom of Satan, translated into the kingdom of God’s dear Son, adopted into the heavenly family and put into this royal household. Is there any honour in the world that is comparable to that?
If you realise the honour, you will be careful about your behaviour. As you walk down the street you will say to yourself, I am a child of God, I belong to the royal family of heaven, and people are looking at me and watching me, and they are perfectly right in doing so; they will be judging God, they will be judging Christ by what they see in me. So, Paul says, `Be imitators of God’, walk down the street, if I may so put it, as God’s representative. Live in such a way that everybody knowing you will be made to think of God, because you are a child of God. Our Lord Himself put it so clearly: `A new commandment’, He says, `I give unto you, that ye love one another; by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples.’ By looking at you and seeing you loving one another they will say, What is this? we have never seen anything like this before, this cannot happen among ordinary men. And they will be driven to the only adequate explanation: By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples’. Or again, as our Lord put it in the Sermon on the Mount: `Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ In other words, the conduct of the Christian makes people think of his heavenly
Father; they cannot look at the child in his walk and behaviour, without thinking of the Father. `Become imitators of God, as children beloved’!
One final question—how are we to imitate God? The Apostle answers us. He tells us that we are to do it by walking in love—`and walk in love’! He means that the whole of our conduct and conversation must be carried on in the realm and in the sphere of love, for God is love. He has already hinted at it in the last verse of the previous chapter: `Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you’. And as our Lord Himself said in His Sermon on the Mount: `Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). He says you should live in this way, `that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven’. And how does He behave? `He maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’ That is how God behaves! He does not confine His blessings to the good and the just. Not at all! He gives them to the evil and the unjust also. What then am I to do? Our Lord Himself supplies the answer: `Love your enemies, bless them that curse you; do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you’. In other words, we must apply to others what God has done to us. Even if people are our enemies and treat us in a very cruel and most unjustifiable manner, we are to deal with them as God deals with His enemies, with the unjust and the vile and the evil. We are called upon, as God’s children beloved, to imitate God, and this means that we will not live an ordinary sort of life. Our life will be absolutely different.
`If’, says our Lord, `you love them which love you, what reward have ye? Do not even the publicans the same?’ Publicans love those who love them; there is nothing clever or extraordinary about that. And then He says, `If ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?’ There is nothing wonderful in that! It is the world’s morality. `What do ye more than others?’ says our Lord; which really means, `What is there special about that?’ Our life, you see, is to be a very special one. You cannot be a child of God without being a very special person! There is nothing ordinary about the Christian; he is extra-ordinary, in every single respect, because he is a child of God, and he does things that nobody else can do—the `publicans’ cannot, the non-Christians cannot, he alone can! Our whole life is to be special, because we are children of God.
And so we put it finally, `Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ Ah! but, you say, He is in heaven, and I am on earth, can it be done on earth? It can, says Paul; `walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour’. We shall look at it in greater detail later. It is one of the most glorious statements in the whole Bible. But here it is, lest somebody might feel, Ah! that is all right, it is all very well to say `Be ye perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’, but I am walking the streets of this sinful world. It is all right, you have got a Brother, who has been in it, and He has walked the streets of this world, and this is how He walked—in love! He gave Himself, for us, an offering and a sacrifice. He gave His life, His body to be broken, His blood to be shed, for His enemies, for sinners vile. And it went up to God as a sweetsmelling savour. And as you and I imitate God and imitate the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the firstborn amongst many brethren, our lives and our activities will go up into the presence of God as a sweetsmelling savour; God will enjoy it, God’s father-heart will swell with love and satisfaction as He sees His children imitating Him in the sight of men.
Be, become, therefore, imitators of God, as children beloved. [291-299]