“He’s starting to sound just like you.” I wasn’t sure if that was meant to be a compliment or not. The truth is undeniable though. If we are discipling those younger in the faith, and we should be, it should not surprise anyone that those we disciple start to pick up certain mannerisms, phraseology and hobby horses that we exemplify. This has been true in my own life. There are certain phrases and certain ways of explaining doctrines that I use because those who have taught me the Word of God and the fight of faith use them. For example, you might hear me say things like “satisfaction” and “treasuring” a lot. That is because I have been deeply influenced by the Word ministry of John Piper. This biblical emphasis that Piper makes finds its way into my every day speech because it is good and helpful. Also, emulate things that I see in Pastor John’s life because I trust him. I look to him as an example and so I find it helpful to do things that he, and other faithful men, do.
The main task of discipling is teaching. Now, depending on knowledge and God-given abilities, this might manifold form. You may only take someone through a book of a Bible that has helped you understand the gospel. Perhaps you take to reading and discussing a book with a younger believer. Some may take on larger groups, teaching them the Word of God in a more direct way. All of this must be taken in light of the local church. Disciple-making should be an overflow of, and not divorced from, the authority of the local body of believers. The whole of discipleship is Word centered. This is not the passing on of various opinions, mainly. It is about showing them the glory of God in the face of Christ through what He has revealed to us in the Bible. Following Jesus is primarily knowing Him and enjoying Him. This comes from knowledge, experienced at the level of the affections.
However, there is another aspect of disciple-making that has been alluded to in the earlier paragraphs. Necessarily, those we disciple will begin to, in some ways, pick up things from us that they begin to do and say in their own lives. But is this good? I think, with all the necessary qualifications and caveats, it is a good and most biblical things. Let’s explore some problems that imitation can bring and then look at why it is good and expected.
Twice the Child of Hell
We must make sure that we are not passing ourselves along as the subject of discipleship. In other words, we must not place ourselves or our preferences in the center of our teaching. Jesus had sharp words for those who did such things. In Matthew 23 we see Jesus in the middle of His blistering woes to the Pharisees. Even in their attempt to make even one “proselyte,” despite being willing even to “cross the sea,” they were shutting up the kingdom of heaven for themselves and those who they would reach. This is fundamentally because the Pharisees misunderstood their Bibles (John 5:39). If they had read it with eyes to see they would realize that the Scriptures unilaterally speak of Christ, His sufferings and subsequent glories (1 Peter 1:11). In teaching their own man-centered, legalistic approach to the God of the Bible, they proved their own doom and secured the doom of their pupils. We should be wary of teaching those we disciple anything except those doctrines that accord with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God. We must labor to make sure we are not simply the blind leading the blind (Matt. 15:14).
“He Must Be One of Mine”
Charles Spurgeon was blessed of God to have one of the most fruitful ministries in the history of the church. The 19th century, no hotbed for religious zeal in the public square, saw the gospel championed through Spurgeon and his colleagues in England and beyond. There were up to 10,000 people in attendance on any given Sunday at his church, the Metropolitan Tabernacle. His popularity did not come without any negative effects, however. It seems that many would come to the church with an eye to the spectacle that was the powerful Mr. Spurgeon. Much like many would-be disciples in the life of Jesus, they just followed the crowd. Spurgeon had to stress the need for repentance, faith, and a spiritual interest in the Lord Jesus. He gave an illustration from his life. The story goes that he had encountered a drunk man as he walked down the streets of London. This man apprehended Spurgeon and asked if he remembered him. Spurgeon admitted that he did not. The man, shocked that Spurgeon would forget him, said “I am one of your converts.” Now this man was obviously not born again. Spurgeon replied to that man, in his characteristic whit, “you must be one of mine, because you are not one of God’s.” Or something like that. The point of the story is to show that we are not laboring to win people to us. It is God that we would have them behold; His glory and not our own. Those who simply become like us will end up at the end of a road to futility and joylessness.
There is a Better Way
But imitation in discipleship is a good and natural thing. However, like any theological concept, it must be placed in its biblical place and to its biblical proportion. There teaching/imitation ratio is not 1:1. We want them to become more like Christ than like us. For one reason, we are still deeply sinful and flawed ourselves, needing to become more like Christ in our own lives coram deo. We are called to “holy emulation” as John Piper puts it. So then, how do we deal with holy emulation in a way that is healthy and glorifying to God?
First, we have to see that there is a biblical warrant for holy emulation. Paul never encourages those who he has taught to not imitate him. We see quite the opposite. In two places in the book of Philippians we see Paul calling people to imitate his pursuit of godliness. In Philippians 3:17 he says, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Paul has already explained the doctrine of justification by faith alone. He is not saying that the gospel is “join in imitating me.” That is bad news because admittedly, Paul is the chief of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). Paul in this context is talking about sanctification, the process whereby God makes us more like Christ by His spirit; animating us to put forth effort to kill sin and put on things that help us enjoy Him more. He is saying to the Philippians, I submit to you, that they will be helped in their spiritual sight of Jesus if they imitate the things he says and does, insofar as they are true to the Bible. Paul gives a similar exhortation in the next chapter in verse 9.
Paul’s theology of holy emulation is best explained in light of 1 Corinthians 11:1. He says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This is what Paul is not saying. He is not saying, “I follow Christ and now you follow me as a mediator between you and Christ.” In other words, Paul is not saying that those we disciple are not to follow Christ on their own. Brothers, be careful not to live someone’s Christian life for them. They must kill sin, they must read the Bible, they must attend church, they must enjoy God! No, Paul is saying just what John Piper has said is the difference between hero worship and holy emulation. Paul is saying, “follow me insofar as I am following Christ.” “The things that I do that are good and biblical, and help you to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, do those things.” We are not the model. But we are a type of under-models. Elders in the church are to be faithful under-shepherds, those who faithfully point to the Great Shepherd.
To be honest, if your life is not worthy of emulation, you don’t need to be teaching others. Far from a call to perfection or spiritual elitism, this is a call to press on towards maturity. It is not humble to say that your life is not worth emulating. Now, of course it is not humble to continually remind people how worthy of imitation your life really is. We all go from faith to faith by the sovereign grace of God and are all alike justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith and repentance in the gospel. But that justification is necessarily followed by sanctification. God gives maturity in part to be able to model it for others and to display the root of that maturity: God in Christ.
One other consideration that makes healthy, God-centered emulation a good thing is that the Word of God never changes. Theological novelty and innovation rarely are rarely good for the church. Ancient words, ever true, are best left unchanged. In discipleship, we are not encouraging people to “find their own thing.” Now, to be sure, we want them to be a sanctified version of themselves, personalities and quirks included. I don’t want to teach and extrovert to be introverted like myself. I don’t want them to start eating the same foods as me. They remain their own person. But by way of understanding God and relating to Him, they stand best in a long line of faithful men. God has saved every believer, from Abraham to today, in basically the same way. All of us have been saved by the same God, by the same means, by the same instrument. God has given a Word that is not relativized but that relativizes all other would-be sources of information. Paul does not invite timothy to “do his thing” but to “guard the deposit.” Those great phrases of the Bible and those great quotes and wordings from faithful men in the past should grace our lips and it should be a joy to hear those we love and teach speak similarly. God is honored by a certain God-centered way of talking. We speak about what we love most in the most vibrant of ways. Praise God that anyone would want to speak with sweetness about the deep things of God. That is the work of the Spirit, not us.
Proceed With Caution
This will never be done perfectly. It is our job to teach those whom we teach to eat the meat and spit out the bones. We should be doing that to those who teach us as well. But insofar as people help us to understand the Word, help us see how to fight sin harder, and be more obedient to God, we should emulate their lives. In the end we are just beggars pointing people to where the bread is found. But we who have been getting the bread longer and can help others to be more satisfied in that bread; that they might go there early and often.