Becoming Christ-like: The Goal of the Christian Life?

When asked what is the goal of the Christian life, a typical mantra heard in evangelical circles is the knee-jerk response, “To become Christ-like.” Some folks really think through what they are saying and their views are more nuanced than this slogan. But most Christians, I fear, just parrot what they’ve been taught. This post examines this motto with a view toward articulating what the goal of the Christian life should be.

When I was a young man, I desperately wanted to be Christ-like. I was told that this was the primary objective of the Christian life. The more I worked at it, however, the more I began to see my failings. Every time I needed to ask forgiveness from someone, I considered myself a failure at the prime objective. Every time someone corrected me or pointed out some blind-spot in my life, I realized that I was treading backwards. It started to unnerve me. As the years rolled on, these constant failings became too much. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, I recoiled at the notion that I was still a depraved sinner. After all, I had been a believer for many years—shouldn’t I be reaching perfection by now?

Of course, I rejected the Keswick model of sanctification—the idea that one could be in fellowship one minute and out the next, in the next, and so on; that wasn’t my problem. I also had rejected the Wesleyan perfectionism model—at least, theoretically. I knew that I really was never going to be perfect in this life, even in a limited sense. But I nevertheless assumed that I should be much more mature than I really was. So, in order to salve my conscience about reaching the goal of Christ-likeness, I began to hide my sin. I put blinders on when I was confronted about my behavior, and wormed my way out of asking for forgiveness, justifying my lack of need for such on the basis of my supposed maturity. I would rationalize my sin, and see fault in the one who pointed it out. “Ah, that guy is not very godly, so why should I listen to him?”

At one point, when I was in college, I made a table of the characteristics of love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of every day I would rate myself on how I was doing. I’d use a 100-point scale. The irony is that the very passage that was intended to help me focus on others became a means for me to focus on myself. Christ-likeness meets legalism!

But the more I studied scripture, the more I came to realize that I had gotten the focus of the Christian life totally out of whack. If my goal is for me to become Christ-like, then my goal is inevitably and necessarily self-centered. How well am I doing at this goal? What do I look like as a Christian? My goal had become my role, and the focus had become too inward.

There is time for introspection in the Christian life. It should, however, be a time of repentance toward the Lord and gratitude for his love and mercy. But there is also the need for robust concentration on the Lord and on others. Paul tells the Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil 2.3 [NET]). I used to argue with this verse: “Yes, but if all of us did this, then no one would be more important than anyone else!” Missing Paul’s point is putting things charitably. The Lord was the first to rub Deuteronomy 6.5 Leviticus 19.18 together, calling them “the greatest commandment” and one “like it”: Love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22.34–40). The focus in these passages is not on one’s role and therefore not on one’s self-image, needs, or ego. The focus is on the glory of God and the needs of others.

There it was, in black and white, and I missed it all these years! If the goal of the Christian life is primarily to glorify God, then the focus is certainly not on myself. It’s the combination of attitude and actions that work together to magnify the Lord. And the second goal of the Christian life is to focus on the needs of others. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean to love your neighbor as you should love yourself. No, self-love is assumed, not commanded. Loving one’s neighbor is not.

One of the implications of this new revelation (to me) about the goal of the Christian life was that by focusing on what I should become I was missing the proper outward and upward view of life. And it became harder and harder for me to admit my wrong to others. But the believer who seeks God’s glory and thinks hard about the welfare of their fellow-saints is not arrogant, does not hold grudges, is not self-absorbed. All of us, for as long as we live in this world, will need to ask forgiveness from someone. The mature person recognizes his own sins and readily admits them to others whom he has offended. The one who focuses on his own Christ-likeness is focusing on a tertiary goal and can end up being blinded by his own ambition.

For many, this blog is a simple lesson, one that you’ve come to recognize for a long, long time. For others, it may be startling, unsettling. But the self-absorption of American Christianity has a lot to learn. I pray that each of us can make the main thing the main thing, shed ourselves of our insecurities, and begin each day by asking, “How can I magnify you today, Lord?”

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42 thoughts on “Becoming Christ-like: The Goal of the Christian Life?

  1. The irony is that as one becomes more like Christ, the less one thinks of oneself and the more one loves and serves his God and his neighbor. Even going to the cross, Jesus was more concerned for God’s glory and His kingdom; even when hanging on the cross, Jesus was providing for the care of his mother, tending to the repentant thief, seeking forgiveness for those who were killing him, and winning our redemption. The humility of love magnifies our God.

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  2. Tim Cole

    Well said Professor. Thanks for posting. After long years of meditation in the Gospels,our congregation’s goal and motto is simple: Love the Triune God, Love Our Neighbors–the people He brings into our daily path (read street, Interstate, school, restaurant, neighborhood, grocery store, family, boss, employee, and on it extends); seek after their (God, neighbor) highest good.

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    1. Kyle

      I think its mainly one of perspective. Christlikeness is subjective and inward focused. Glorication of God and love of neighbor are objective and outward focused. I think both perspectives are necessary and different personalities probably tend to over-emphasize one or the other. I agree with the tone of this artice but I also think it is possible to justify a lot of worldliness by responding that you are loving your neighbor and that’s all that matters without looking at Christ as our example in how to love neighbor. He is going to be the prime example of how to apply the 3rd use of the law.

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  3. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the Westminster Catechism. The answer to that question stared me in the face for years, but it’s only in recent years that I finally “got it”: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. If only I’d realized this back in my student days when my friends and I would fret over what was God’s plan for our lives. After all, there it is: glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. This means that every decision shouldn’t be based on how I feel, or whether it fits with some grand scheme I think the Lord has for me, but on the simple question: which option brings the most glory to God? And second to that, which option serves my neighbor best? The Lord has our future in His hands, so His glory really is the most important thing, and maybe the only thing, we need to be concerned with.

    Great post, Dr. Wallace!

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  4. Tim Reichmuth

    Dr. W.,
    This ‘ others’ first view is surely the actual goal of the christian life, assuming supremacy of devotion to God, as articulated in your post. However, this view is not opposed to being ‘Christ-like’ when we understand that Jesus in His interaction with others always elevated God and others thereby diminishing self importance. In addition, the call in scripture, to be holy as He is holy and to be pure as He is pure, surely requires us to desire to be more like Christ. We are not running a competition where we measure our individual actions against the Perfect standard as you appeared to understand Christ-likeness but instead evaluate our walk against where we have been. This is not being self centered in a negative sense but evaluating our walk with the right perspective, to do what Jesus would do in all phases of our lives. We preach and demonstrate this tri-fold theology in Christ’s church here. Christ likeness is not a tertiary matter but indeed part and parcel of our love of God and others!

    In Him whose Grace is sufficient,

    Tim

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  5. Wes

    This blog article articulates the wrong thinking of the “I Am Second” campaign, as well. We are not to consider ourselves as second, but instead, should consider and position ourselves last. Thank you!

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  6. Great thoughts. With this in mind, even when we do sin, we still have opportunity to display the glory of God! As we come running back to the gospel, God is glorified, for He is the great giver of grace, mercy, and forgiveness of sins. When we acknowledge our sin in repentance, God receives glory for His grace (not that we should sin all the more… may it never be! for we are dead to sin in Christ). And when we sin against others, we can still take the opportunity to live out the gospel as we confess our sin to the offended brother or sister and show that we are just like any other person with indwelling sin rather than hide it in pride. Praise the Lord for His grace!

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  8. This is excellent and thought-provoking.
    I’m curious about “The Keswick model,” and the problem with the view of being “in and out of fellowship.” I was raised with that model, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts about it (or any link you might want to share.)

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  9. glenden riddle

    I could not read this post without thinking of Zane Hodges comments in his most excellent commentary on Romans, pg. 105, “Man is perfectly capable of bragging that his works demonstrate that he is one of God’s ‘elect.’ … No system ob theology that includes works in its soteriology can also exclude boasting.”

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  12. You are so right – becoming like Christ is all about glorifying Him. One verse that came to mind as I was reading is Philippians 1:6 “being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;” He began the work and He is faithful to complete it. We just need to be faithful in the areas we can and allow Him to do the work. Thank you for the reminder today that it is not about us at all.

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  13. Gf

    The Goal of the Christian Life is know God, i.e. personal knowledge. Seek to increasingly know Him and He imparts He Life to us. The universal call for all Christians is to walk in dependency on Christ. Paul reminds Christians to continue in the same manner that they first came to faith (Colossians 2:6, Galatians 3:1-6). We are likewise reminded in Revelation (2:1-7) that this is what our first love is – if we forget that, we will focus on our own efforts that we have achieved by our own strength, in our own theological correctness and judge others by our own same standards. It is the Christian’s responsibility and privilege to live life through the transforming power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (i.e. to walk by faith and live by grace). It is our Lord’s prerogative as to how He expresses his moral character in and through us, that’s up to Christ, the true Vine. In a rather simplistic but quite profound way, we are called to abide, living on dependency on the indwelling Spirit. That’s our duty. Bearing fruit (i.e. the fruit of the Spirit, the moral character of Christ) is thankfully God’s responsibility (John 15:1-8; 2 Cor 4:7-11), not ours. I relate very much to Dan’s disappointment and can genuinely empathise. I suspect that is what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was exactly that, something that reminded him to rejoice in his own weaknesses (2 Cor 12:9-10). For when he was weak (in the flesh), he was strong (in the Spirit). I am reminded that when I experience that same disappointment, I have taken my eyes off Christ, and have been unwittingly concentrating my efforts on what was futile as a non-Christian and what Christ came to save me from, trying to sanctify myself in my strength by my own efforts. Perhaps the hardest thing for all of us, particularly those whom God has richly gifted is, it to forget this simple principle because the Lord has gifted us so well that we can function very well day-to-day without Him, independently rather than in dependence on Christ. The hymn, “Trust and Obey” says it all.

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  14. richrockster

    Reblogged this on Richard Cheesman and commented:
    “If my goal is for me to become Christ-like, then my goal is inevitably and necessarily self-centered. How well am I doing at this goal? What do I look like as a Christian? My goal had become my role, and the focus had become too inward.”

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  15. Gf

    Apologies, I’d appreciate it if you could kindly replace last 2 sentences with the following amendments:

    Perhaps the hardest thing for all of us, particularly those whom God has richly gifted, it’s easy to forget this simple principle because the Lord has gifted us so well that we can function very well day-to-day without Him, independently rather than in dependence on Christ. The hymn, “Trust and Obey” says it all.

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  18. Dan I sometimes Jesus was just messing with us when he said ” be ye Perfect”.
    Easy for the God-Man,a lot more difficult
    for those of us not born of a virgin.
    I believe a substantial portion of our lives here is for us to come to Crystal clear understanding the God is God and we are not.
    Sanctification is a painful and amazing process. Thanks for sharing Doc!
    Shalom Brother Robert LeBus

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  19. Be ye Perfect !
    Sometimes think Jesus was just messing with us when he said that.
    Harder for us non-God-men not born of a Virgin. I feel a large part of the reason for our lives here on this earth is to come to know with a Crystal Clear understanding that God is God and we are not. Would not work to try to spend eternity with a bunch of little Satan’s all wanting to be God. Sanctification is a long painful and Amazing Journey.I am 54 and in only the last few years been able to appreciate the Lords growing us through fiery trials. Like a Olympic Coach preparing us to win the Gold.
    Thanks for Sharing Doc!
    Shalom Brother Robert LeBus

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  22. Will

    Dr. Wallace,

    This article really spoke to my heart tonight because I recognized that very same self-centered focus instead of on loving God because of what he has already done for me and loving those all around me.

    Feeling blessed,

    Will

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  25. Dr. Wallace, be thankful: God used this post today… exactly what I needed to read. But I think there’s a typo (maybe I’m reading incorrectly). I tried to email you, but I’ve lost your email.

    The second the last paragraph: “One of the implications of this new revelation (to me) about the goal of the Christian life was that by focusing on what I should become I was missing ON(?) the proper outward and upward view of life”

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  29. Ruth

    Being Christ like begins with a conscience understanding and belief, that you are in right standing with God because of Jesus’ shed Blood. Further this understanding must come from the total faith of the complete work of the cross which states that “as He is so are you” 1 Jhn 4:17, operating from the measureless love that an Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnipresence God has declared towards who is born of again. Eph 2:10 states that we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus, that in 1Jhn 2:5 that we are in Christ, 1 Jhn 3: 9-10 God’s nature abides in us and therefore we take our nature from Him. Also stated in Col 2:9 “For in Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, and you are complete in Him (Christ) who is the head of all principality and power”.

    God looks at Christ and credits you with all that Christ is and has, Eph 2:6 for you are seated in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. Known and understand that on the cross of Calvary all your sins past present and future were all nailed to the cross in Jesus, the price has been paid way beyond full. Glory Alleluia. Does this understanding not fill you with overflowing love towards our triune God.

    It is from this understanding of your identity in Christ, your present standing in Christ, your oneness with Christ in whom you stand complete, from this platform that we begin to see that being Christ like is not an impossible ask, if we allow from our inner most belly rivers of living water to flow out to a desperate seeking and needing world. Asking each and everyday Lord show me how I can Glorify You this day, and show me how to love my neighbor today harken to the voice of the Holy Spirit an live your correct life full of the supernatural as in Acts.

    Remember you are not of your own, your God’s, more than His representative, His ambassador, His emissary, your His Child. Be encouraged, remain blessed.

    In His Service,

    Ruth.

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  30. Living by grace

    Ruth, what you say is correct – partly correct. What you refer to is imputed righteousness, i.e. by faith the righteousness of Christ is credited to the believer. It is ultimately by faith as you have stated, dependency on the work of Christ on our behalf. For many years my understanding of the Christian was like yours because that was what my church taught. But if you read the scriptures carefully, this is an impoverished understanding of the gospel and of the Christian life because it selectively ignores many important sections of scripture which deal with imparted righteousness (Romans chapter 8 esp. vv.9-11, 2 Corinthians 3:3-6,18, 4:7,10,11, Colossians 1:26-27, 2:6-7, Galatians 3:2b-5, 5:22-23, 2 Peter 1:3-8, Philippians 2:12b-13, Ephesians 3:20-21). Ultimately the gospel is about both the imputation of righteousness in order that God may indwell the believer through His Spirit and impart His righteousness to them. The work of the Spirit is to transform our moral character into that of our Lord Jesus Christ (that’s what it means to be Christ-like), it’s lifelong process that won’t reach it’s final destination until Christ returns. Have you noticed that some Christians remain immature and others are growing in maturity? Here’s the rub, it is a cooperative process. The choices we make in the circumstances of life that God regularly presents to us are important. Surrendering to Christ in faith and obedience has important consequences on whether our lives are filled with the Spirit or are devoid of God’s work and driven by our own efforts – reflect on Christ’s warning about this in Revelation 2:2-5. Apart from the active work of the Spirit in the believer, we cannot glorify God no matter how earnest our intentions are and how hard we try

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