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What Does It Mean to Imitate Christ? Dr. Nathan Tarr

Phoenix Seminary
June 7, 2022

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Tarr about what it means to imitate Christ.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How sanctification flows out of our union with Christ
  • The role of humility as we disciple others and imitate Christ for them
  • Whether it is appropriate to even talk about imitating Christ and how that fits into the message of the gospel
  • Evidences of sanctification
  • The role other Christians play in the process of sanctification
  • Additional resources for imitating Christ

Dr. Nathan Tarr holds a PhD in Biblical Spirituality from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as associate professor of Pastoral Theology at Phoenix Seminary.


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.


Brian Arnold (00:15):

The book of Acts tells the story of how the Holy Spirit built the church of Christ. The gospel was preached, and people converted by the thousands. But it wasn't an easy road for early believers. They were persecuted wherever the gospel went. The church had scattered after Stephen was stoned to death, and one of those places was Antioch. And we learn in Acts 11:26, that it was in Antioch that followers of Christ were first called Christians. The term is likely a pejorative, intended to mock Christians at the beginning—you are these "little Christs." But the name stuck. And since that time, disciples of Jesus have been called Christians. But what does that mean? What does it mean to be "little Christs?" Well, it certainly has to do with being like Christ. This forms a major theme in the New Testament, and that is the imitation of Christ. How do we as Christians imitate Christ and bring honor to the name Christian? Well, to help us understand this question today, we have with us, Dr. Nathan Tarr. Dr. Tarr holds a PhD in Biblical Spirituality from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And he serves at Phoenix Seminary as associate professor of Pastoral Theology. Dr. Tarr, welcome to the podcast,


Nathan Tarr (01:19):

Brian, thank you. Good to be here.


Brian Arnold (01:20):

So we ask our guests one big question, today it is—what does it mean to imitate Christ? It's kind of a big question, so let's kind of set it theologically at first. So we talk about things like discipleship, which kind of talk about the doctrine of sanctification, which are founded on the doctrine of justification. So maybe define some of those things, and tell us how those fit together.


Nathan Tarr (01:40):

Right. That's a good question. It's a big question. And I wonder if I could start maybe by making it even a little bigger?


Brian Arnold (01:45):

Well, sure.


Nathan Tarr (01:46):

Because I think really what we need to do is set this question of what does it mean to imitate Christ in the context of our union with Christ. I mean, that is the heart of our salvation, is that we don't just receive the benefits from Christ, like justification or sanctification. But really, we are in him. He is alive in us. We are alive in him. And so I think if we start by seeing Christ himself as our life, which is the way Paul loves to talk about it, we are in Christ.


Brian Arnold (02:18):

Oh, all the time. I hope people listening will take notice of that, how often that kind of preposition is used—in Christ. Yeah.


Nathan Tarr (02:25):

So that's the context from which Paul especially loves to discuss those benefits that flow to us who are in Christ. And so one of those benefits is on the legal side—that justification, you mentioned. That before the Judge, the Holy Judge of all the universe, we are declared righteous, because of Christ's righteousness that's imputed to us. And also clothed in his robes of righteousness, as John sees in the book of Revelation—that positional sanctification. But then we begin to, as you mentioned, grow increasingly like little Christs. We begin to have our character shaped by the Holy Spirit's activity within us. And so we come increasingly to emulate, or mimic, or imitate Christ. But none of that happens, none of that is gospel, unless it starts with being in him, as he is in us. And then that life within us works itself out into the way we speak, and the way that we think, and the way that we respond emotionally to the circumstances that we find ourself in. That's I think what we...that's where we want to start when we think about imitation of Christ.


Brian Arnold (03:40):

Well, there'd be some people who would say—if I'm justified by faith alone, and I'm saved, I'm in, I got my ticket to heaven. Why is it so important, then, to press into holiness? What would you say to them?


Nathan Tarr (03:52):

Right. So I wouldn't say it as harshly, maybe, face to face, immediately, but I think what's happening there is that they are beginning to parcel out the benefits of Christ's saving work, apart from Christ himself. And so we don't want to do that. We don't want to begin to talk about—well, if I have this piece, do I really need the other piece? Because you can't divide up our salvation. Because you can't divide Christ. So if he's in us, then we are going to be set right with God. But we are also, then, going to go on. I actually was reading last night a quote by Martin Luther, who we think of as the champion of justification by faith alone. And yet he's saying—if you are in Christ, then that reception of right standing before God, it must, and it will, issue out of the overflow of a thankful heart, out of a desire to be like the one we love, who is Christ. It will issue in works of obedience, in increasing Christ-likeness.


Brian Arnold (04:59):

Because I think we have to ask the hard question. If somebody says that to us—that I've got justification by faith, I'm good to go, so I don't really care about holiness—to really question whether or not they've been justified by faith or not. Because once you're justified by faith, you're in Christ. Part of being in Christ, you have the benefit of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness. He's going to push you forward into sanctification. So if that's not a desire of the heart, if that's not something you see in your life, then I think we've got reason to ask whether or not the justification is true or not.


Nathan Tarr (05:28):

Have you closed, in fact, with Christ, right? Have you received the biblical gospel, or simply maybe a part of the gospel that you've heard? Because the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, he is called the Spirit of Christ, is the one who is within us. I mean, the Spirit is the way Christ is in us. And so, what's he doing in there? Well, he's producing the fruit of the Spirit, which is Christ-likeness. He's working in us the will of God, which Paul says is your sanctification.


Brian Arnold (05:57):

Absolutely. So we are Christians. We are to be formed into the image of Christ, as Paul says. In First Corinthians 11:1, he actually talks about this language of imitation. And Paul says—be an imitator of me, as I imitate Christ. So unpack that for us a little bit. What does that mean for ourselves? And then as we disciple other people? Because I just want to say at the outset, it is stunning to me how often I hear pastors today say—oh, don't look at my life. Don't look at me. I'm just this broken down sinner over here. We just need to look at Jesus. And I always think of First Corinthians 11:1, where Paul said—no, you should be looking at my example. I'm further along in the faith than you are. And I should be serving as a model of greater Christ-likeness that you can follow in the wake.


Nathan Tarr (06:40):

Right. And maybe we need to come back and talk about that link between the character of the professor, the teacher, and the integrity of that message, of the gospel message that they're proclaiming. If it's coming out of your mouth, it ought to be working in your heart. Maybe we can come back to that. But I find Paul's comment in First Corinthians 11 fascinating, because it really is kind of summarizing the last couple chapters of work that he's been doing there in First Corinthians. Where he's making the point, he's redefining success, or maturity, for the Corinthians, who think they have arrived. And what he says, in effect, is—I am exercising my right not to stand on any of my rights. So I'm an Apostle. I am a minister of the gospel. And as such, I could have claimed any number of privileges or prerogatives.


Nathan Tarr (07:33):

I haven't done any of that. And the reason is—I want to see the gospel go forth...I don't want to put any impediment in the way of the gospel. And he walks them through what that looks like regarding his pay, regarding his diet, regarding who he will associate with. And then he closes that all by this kind of this summary statement, which says—yes, pay attention to my example, but also follow in my example. This isn't the exclusive prerogative of an Apostle, or even of a pastor. This is for you. And so, when he has those lists...I think five times, he says—I became as one under the law. I became...why did you do that, Paul? So that I may save some. Where did that come from, Paul? It came from humility, right? He talks about making himself a servant of all. That's what's going on there. He's making him—


Brian Arnold (08:31):

Does that sound like anyone else we know? Right?


Nathan Tarr (08:33):

Where have we heard this before? And that's, in fact, what he does in Philippians 2, is say—you have the mind of Christ. And so what does that mind of Christ look like in the congregation? It looks like considering others more important than yourself. So this is a long way to say, I think what Paul is doing there in First Corinthians 11 is saying—yes, generally imitate me, as I imitate Christ. But I have something specific in mind. And that is the way I have laid aside my rights to serve others with salvation, right? To make sure that the gospel is proclaimed as freshly and powerfully and beautifully as if, in fact, Jesus was here. Right? They're seeing, in my manner of life, Christ's manner of laying down his life, of humbling himself, of considering those he came to save more important than himself. So that, specifically, is I think what he's indicating. So where that is appropriate for us to say—as I humble myself, you follow my example—I think we do have warrant. In fact, I think we ought to be able to say that to those that we're discipling.


Brian Arnold (09:45):

Makes me think of the words of John the Baptist—he must increase, I must, decrease. Spurgeon said something to the effect of—I have, you know, focused all my prayers on this one thing: that he might increase, and I might decrease. If we're imitating Christ, who emptied himself to become a servant to us, right? Philippians 2, as you mentioned before, how much more am I to be doing that? So that Christ might be seen in and through my life. Well, I remember was eighth grade, and I was at a Christian camp, and it was a really impactful season of my life, and a camp that I went to. And I remember leaving that weekend, or that week, with a bracelet. And the bracelet had four letters on it—WWJD, right? What would Jesus do? <laugh>. And that became like this idea of imitation. Like, so that as I'm, you know, at school and kids are doing things they shouldn't be doing, I look down at my hand, and see the "what would Jesus do?" thing, and it triggers for me.


Brian Arnold (10:45):

And I don't think it's actually a horrible thing. In fact, I was even at Dutch Bros this past week, and a girl was wearing a WWJD bracelet. So they're not out of vogue, apparently. Or she's really out of fashion. So what do you make of something like that even? Is that helpful? Because I remember the critique of that came, and people said—but Jesus is God! So in a lot of ways, I can't do it. Like, would it be better to have a "what would Paul do?" kind of bracelet, or something that's a bit more realistic? So how do you help people think through that, in terms of imitation?


Nathan Tarr (11:16):

Right. So, maybe two different questions, then. How do we think about that in general? And is it appropriate to talk about imitating Christ? So I think that's a great example, the bracelet thing, of a truth that loses its...maybe its gospel clarity when it gets commercialized, right? When it becomes the book, and the little video, and the bracelet and all of that.


Brian Arnold (11:39):

But I do wish I'd come up with it.


Nathan Tarr (11:41):

<laugh> Would we be here today having this conversation if you had? So I think it's going to come down to the question of your motive, ultimately. Right? There's a way to look at that bracelet and think—I have to, by dint of my own effort, somehow copy a set of behaviors that Jesus modeled for me, as an example. That's not the gospel. To think that Jesus saved us, simply by setting us an example of a moral life. That's not the gospel. He doesn't just show us how to live. He saves us from our sins through his life and death and resurrection. So there's some things you'd want to put in place before you say—what would Jesus do? But I think it's an appropriate question to ask, if for no other reason than that is what Paul seems to say, is I am imitating Christ. And you imitate me, as I imitate Christ.


Nathan Tarr (12:32):

Jesus himself, in the high priestly prayer in John's gospel seems to indicate that there's not a problem with believers receiving him in the person of the Holy Spirit, behaving in ways that share in his life with the Father. Right? So I don't think we need a mediator in that sense—of Paul or anyone else. But you're right. We do need to make sure that the gospel message goes with the commercialized products. And I think the question of what kind of imitation we're talking about is also an important one. I mean, it's a word that needs to be used...needs to be distinguished between its senses. In the sense of—we are not a replacement Christ. If you think of imitating Christ in the life of your child or your spouse—they don't look to us as if we are Christ, or taking the place of Christ.


Nathan Tarr (13:28):

And we don't certainly imitate him salvifically, although Paul does say he's filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. But it seems clear in Colossians one there that what's happening is that personal representation of the manner of Christ's humility to the Colossian church. So he's always the creator. He's always the head. We're always the member of the body. He's always the cornerstone. We're always the stone, the living stone, in the temple. There's never...there should never be a confusion about if we are, in a sense, kind of competing with Christ on the same level. We're mimicking. We're echoing. So he's always the first voice and we're the echo. He's always the pattern that we follow. Like my son would push his little bubble mower around behind me when he was much younger, and now mows the yard. But, you know, there's a pattern in which we grow into Christ-likeness by following his example. But there's fences around that invitation, certainly.


Brian Arnold (14:32):

I do feel compelled to say this piece here, is Dr. Tarr is new to Phoenix Seminary, and to Phoenix. And so for those of you who don't know, mowers are things for grass, that cut grass down. <laugh> Welcome to the desert.


Nathan Tarr (14:46):

Let me sketch...I'll draw you a picture of how this works. So we can think about it washing dishes, perhaps. You do wash dishes here in Phoenix, don't you?


Brian Arnold (14:54):

<laugh> Yes, of course. Of course. Yeah.


Nathan Tarr (14:56):

Yeah. So maybe that's how our kids learn how to wash dishes or take out trash. But I do think it's interesting. Can I keep going on this thought just for a second? Paul seems to recognize the possibility of confusion here, because he says at times, like when he's talking to the Corinthian church in chapter seven, he makes it very clear—here's Jesus' words to you. And now I'm about to give you some apostolic counsel, but these are my words, not Christ's words. So he's not under any kind of delusion, as if—I'm imitating Christ, therefore, everything I say carries the authority of Christ. When it comes to his authority, he draws clear lines of distinction. This is me speaking in my apostolic office, so Christ speaking through me. Now this is just wisdom that I think you ought to follow. But he makes it clear that this is from me, not from the Lord. Right? I think that's a recognition of the two kinds of imitation. The bad kind, where we imagine we are Christ, and then the good kind, which is when we follow in his...


Brian Arnold (15:55):

It's like imitating versus impersonating. In some ways.


Nathan Tarr (15:58):

That's right. Right. And yes.


Brian Arnold (16:01):

So let me ask you this. You've been a pastor for a long time. And I think when we have these kinds of conversations, gentle-spirited Christians can be under a lot of conviction about whether or not their life is imitating Christ enough, and feel a lot of conviction over that. The New Testament talks a lot about being transformed into the image of Christ. So that's part of this too, right? Is we're imitating him, but we're also being transformed into his image. How does a person know that that's been happening in their life? Like, how do you, as a pastor, sit someone down who's really wrestling through this, of whether or not they're imitating Christ enough? Which you'd want to, I'm sure, go right back to the gospel and say—it's not about you, trying to bootstrap your way in. But what are some of those marks of being transformed into the image of Christ?


Nathan Tarr (16:50):

Yeah, that's a great question. Very important. And I think it's right to bring up the sensitive spirits, because they can tend to make some assumptions that aren't always healthy, in terms of they feel condemnation where maybe that's not appropriate. And this is an area where that can certainly happen. It's interesting to me here that Paul seems to be increasingly aware of the depth of his sin as he progresses in holiness. Where he ends up, at the end of his life, considering himself as "the chief of sinners." So I don't think that being increasingly aware of our sin, being grieved over our sin, is a negative thing, necessarily. It's just what do we do with it when, in a sense, that kind of sanctification elevator goes to the next floor down and those doors open again. And we thought we just had it all kind of cleaned up and fixed. And now we see a new level of disordered loves. And we start to set those in order again. How do we not despair?


Nathan Tarr (17:56):

And I think Paul's example of realizing that fresh depths of love to Jesus will carry another side of that coin, which is fresh grief over our remaining sin. And so that doesn't disqualify us when we see that sin. We do need to take it to him though, and not fall back into that moralizing trap of—let me get it cleaned up enough so he'll approve. So he'll receive me. We don' you said, looking at ourselves in the mirror is not the way we grow in the likeness of Christ. Looking to Christ, being freshly stunned with his beauty, like his moral perfection, even. Spending time in the gospels, and beholding him for who he is as the Spirit opens the eyes of our heart to see—that does, in Thomas Chalmer's words, I mean, that is that new affection for Christ. For his mercy, for his patience, his kindness, his gentleness, his righteousness. That does drive out, or expel, those old or disordered affections in our heart. So yes, that's a good word. We don't look to ourselves to grow in Christ-likeness. We look to him. And as we do look to him, we see the example that the Spirit is shaping in us, but we also see forgiveness. We see, as the Puritans love to say, right? There's more grace in Christ than sin in us. And so we are daily reminded of that, and it gives us hope.


Brian Arnold (19:33):

Well, I think that answers one of the questions I was going to say, but I want to make sure people are catching it. Because a lot of folks, I think listening, will say—well, I want tp grow more in Christ-likeness. I want to imitate Jesus better. We hope that that's the heart. And you've given some real significant ways forward in that, of looking to Christ, right? First? But it's also about filling the vessel, in a lot of ways, right? Like, how do we do it even through the disciplines, right? That God has given us already to meet with him, to commune with him. And as we do that, we're peering deeper into who God is, and that transforms us.


Nathan Tarr (20:07):

That's right. So this is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit. And so maybe a place to begin, a simple place to begin, would be Galatians five, and those fruit of the Spirit. And taking those, really, in two different directions as we sit with that passage. First, thanking God that Christ is like this. I mean, this is the beautiful character of Christ on display for us in Galatians five. This is who he is. And so I think it's right to, in a sense, worship there. That does helpful things to our heart as we worship him, not just in general, but specifically for who he is, as he reveals himself in his Word. I mean, he is fully God, but he's also fully man, which means he's the true man.


Nathan Tarr (20:57):

He is the human into whose image we are all being transformed by the work of the Spirit. And so, I think it's right to worship there, and be thankful that that's the kind of Savior we have, the kind of shepherd that we have. But also, then, to turn the list around and say—Lord, make me more like this. I mean, that's a very simple, childlike prayer. But there's patience, or there's, you know, loving kindness, there's mercy, there's self-control, and then here's our life, right? Where we so easily can see areas where we lack those things. And praying that the Spirit would make us more like Christ there. That's a very simple way to combine several disciplines of reflectively reading, or prayerfully reading, God's Word and asking the Spirit to work within us. I don't—you may want to get to this more later—but I also acknowledge here the significance of the body of Christ in helping us grow into the likeness of Christ. And that may be a spouse, or children, certainly members of your congregation, who will model for you Christ-likeness in ways you're still growing in. But also be able to call things out in you.


Nathan Tarr (22:14):

This is one of the blessings that I think we don't practice enough in the church, often. Because the world is never going to put its finger on our patience and say—that's amazing that you just responded that way! I see Jesus in you there, right? The world's economy values everything other than Christ's manner of life. Right? So as a church, what does that mean? It means we need to be alert to the ways that humility, and not standing on your rights, and considering others more important than yourself are being manifested in our brothers and sisters. And call that out and say—I want to encourage you right here in what I saw with your children, or with your work. Also, of course, a few friends having the prerogative to say—what I heard when you spoke to your wife, that was not a patient tone of voice. I would encourage you to, you know, to look at that, what's going on there. So we could play that out for a while, but that's the idea. I think, as private and individual as we love to be, we need to feel the help that the body of Christ is for us, even in these areas.


Brian Arnold (23:20):

That's just another means of grace that God's given. Right?


Nathan Tarr (23:22):

Absolutely, it is.


Brian Arnold (23:22):

Other Christians in our life, the church, reading the Bible, prayer. Even childlike prayer, right? That God adores and loves and enjoys answering. Well, Dr.Tarr, I am greatly encouraged and challenged in this conversation today. What are some resources that you could point people to? Maybe one or two that would really help with this idea of imitating Christ?


Nathan Tarr (23:43):

So I'd point us to two. I would point you to—it sounds silly to say—but I would point you to the Scriptures. That's where we want to read, find Christ, and ask the Holy Spirit to use those living words to shape us into his image. So let's not skip that part, that resource there. But also, I find biography to be incredibly encouraging in this regard, because we will find people there who push us to be like Christ. If we're tempted to kind of let ourselves off easy, their example will not always do that. They understand the rigor and the significance of developing in Christ-likeness as a disciple in the way of Christ. So we find a little bit of steel there. Like, their example kind of prods us, pushes us. But also we find those that we can emulate, like Paul calls us to do. And so encouraging us that this can happen. <laugh> it can happen to that person. It can happen to me. And find maybe some ways that we could walk that way forward,


Brian Arnold (24:48):

Real fast—favorite biography?


Nathan Tarr (24:50):

I would say Judson. Have to go with Judson, yeah. Adoniram Judson.


Brian Arnold (24:53):

To The Golden Shore?


Nathan Tarr (24:54):

Yes, absolutely.


Brian Arnold (24:55):

Yeah. Well, very good. Well, I hope in and through this conversation we are encouraged to be little Christs. That our culture, even if they use it pejoratively, can say—those people are little Jesuses. They're trying to imitate the way of the Lord.


Nathan Tarr (25:08):

Yes, I pray so.


Brian Arnold (25:09):

Amen. Thanks for joining us today.


Nathan Tarr (25:10):

Thank you.


Outro (25:11):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we've been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you're called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can't join us on campus, I'd like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you've heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at


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