As Christians, we know that God is at work in us; making us more like Jesus. The title of this post is an excerpt from Romans 8:29 that says just that. But what exactly does that mean? I believe that we get this really wrong sometimes. This idea of being made into the image of Jesus is the often what fuels the fire of works righteousness. For whatever reason, in the 21st century west, we have latched onto the moral excellence of Jesus as the goal of our sanctification (being set apart for God) – as if it was the point; as if it was attainable. But is that really what it means to be conformed to His image? If so, why doesn’t Jesus say so. Can you think of a time in the scriptures that Jesus pointed to His own moral excellence as the goal? The short answer is no. Maybe you could come away with the time when they wanted to stone Him in John 10:32, and He asked which of His good works He was being stoned for. Though His point was not to highlight His own righteousness, but to reveal the foolishness the hatred of the religios leaders. You see moral excellence was not Jesus’ reputation while He was on earth; though He was morally excellent. He was rather accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of crooked business men and sinners. Well, that is something that most churches and most Christians don’t have to worry about today, because we’ve become convinced that being conformed to the image of Jesus requires us to stay away from “those people.”
You see the only truly morally excellent man to ever live, the one who lived the life of moral excellence in our place; because we were incapable of living it, was not focused on His morality; nor on getting everyone around Him to act morally either. He had nothing to prove but He had many to save, so He sought out sinners in grace and truth. His harshest words were directed at those who were convinced they were morally superior to sinners in the world. Jesus’s condemnation was directed at those who would not engage the common world around them with His love, because they thought keeping it at arms-distance is what it meant to be holy.
Jesus never winked at sin or excused it, nor should we. So then, how are we conformed into the image of Jesus? Well, just look at His life. Yes He was, is and always will be God in the flesh, but He didn’t come to earth to display His divinity. He came to earth in true humanity, entirely dependent on His Father. He lowered Himself in every way, including not focusing on the ways He was different than other humans, but the ways He was the same. He entered the lives of sinful people, not for the purpose of pointing out their sin or changing their behavior, but to proclaim His love and acceptance of them – yes acceptance – of them not their sin. But even though He did not accept their sin, neither did He focus on it. He was confident in His Gospel. He knew a real encounter with Him, with His love and with His grace would radically change their hearts and that would work its way out into the rest of their lives.
If you want to be conformed into the image of the Son of God, which we know is God’s will for us, don’t seek to be god-like; seek to be truly human[i]. That’s what Jesus did.
[i] No direct quotes but gleanings from an interview with Hugh Halter.