Is Christlikeness the Goal?

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 5.09.25 PMGordon T. Smith says No. Where? In his new book, Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three. [SMcK: Why not also Anabaptist?]

The book is a gentle evangelical apology for an ecumenical theology that is also sacramental (he’s more of a symbolist) and Spirit-shaped. Church is given the proper place, which it often is not in books on Christian spirituality. Hence, the book is a wonderful new addition to literature about formation but it comes at the topic from three angles at once.

In his reflection on John 15:4, which says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me,” Gordon Smith then says this:

Thus three things call for special emphasis. First, the animating dynamic of the Christian life is not a Christological principle or a doctrine about Christ, however important it is for us to have an understanding of Christ Jesus that is faithful to the Scriptures and to the Christian tradition. Rather, what defines us, animates us, not merely informs but transforms us, is Christ himself who in real time dwells in our midst and in our lives.

Second, it is therefore very important to stress that the heart and soul of the Christian existence is not ultimately about being Christlike, however much that might be a good thing. It is rather that we would be united with Christ. So much contemporary reflection on the Christian life speaks of discipleship as becoming more and more like Jesus. There are two potential problems with viewing this Christlikeness as the Christian ideal and the goal of the church. On the one hand, this is problematic because Christ likeness is derivative of something else, namely, union with Christ. And to pursue it on its own actually distracts us from the true goal of the Christian life.

And then also, when Christlikeness is the goal, we get caught up in debates about what Christlikeness looks like and so easily the church descends to a less than subtle form of legalism as we impose on the church a vision of what it means to be “like Christ.”

And then third, so much piety, especially in evangelical circles, presents what might be called a transactional understanding of Christian spirituality—that Christ has “transacted” something on our behalf. While Christ has definitely acted on our behalf, it was to an end; his actions, notably his death, were not an end in themselves. The purpose of the cross was not merely about a transaction, effected for us and for our salvation. The cross had a purpose, an intended outcome: namely, union with Christ.

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