Louis Berkhof makes an interesting comment. He says, “None of the attributes of God are incommunicable in the sense that there is no trace of them found in man.” There is a fine line between saying that we want to be God and we want to be like God: one is the biblical impetus for everything we do and the other was the inducement to the original sin. Yet, we want to be like God in every aspect; we want to be like Him in every capacity that we can because there is no better pattern for imitation.
Paul strikes a cord in Ephesians 5:1 that is implicit throughout the remainder of Scripture and it is this, we are to imitate God and godly people. In 1 Corinthians 4:6 and 11:1 we see that Paul uses similar—yet different—language. He there states to follow him as He follows Christ. There is a call to imitation. “Imitate me, while I imitate Christ.” Likewise, in Hebrews 6:12 and 13:2 we see an encouragement to imitate others who are imitating God. Imitation is right and normative and is the only genuine means a transformation.
Listen to the words of 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” We are transformed as we behold His glory. He is the source of our imitation and to imitate Him well, we must understand His glory well … we must understand Him. He is the object of our imitation.
Yet, there is one more observation embedded within this verse and this idea of imitation—in order to be biblically changed, that change must represent God more (i.e., imitation). For instance, if I am to change in a biblical way, I must be more like God in some capacity. Forgive the practitioner in me, but this is the idea of “transformed … [from] one degree to another” as I behold His glory. Therefore there is this symbiotic process: if I am to change, I must imitate God. In order for me to imitate God, I must understand God (i.e., so I can know Whom to imitate).
Understanding God as Foundational to Change
What if a foundational part of change is not understanding myself better, the world better, or psychology better, but understanding God better? To say it another way, what if right imitation—which is necessary and guaranteed—is hinged on a right understanding of God? Many times we focus on ourselves in the desire to change, we focus on our circumstances, or we focus on the changes needed in others. Even within the scope of biblical counseling we can make counseling about us. However, true change is not hinged on a right understanding of us—it is hinged on a right understanding of God.
Think with me for a moment: all biblical change is hinged on biblical imitation; biblical imitation is hinged on biblical understanding; biblical understanding is axiomatic to proper, biblical change. Summarily, you cannot change biblically without growing in an understanding of God’s character. Why do I say this and does the Bible support this claim?
Yes. In fact, some form of God’s corresponding character precedes most biblical passages that call towards a biblical change. Let’s look at some of the most well-known passages that take a characteristic of God, and then call us to change in light of who God is.
Forgive Like Him (Eph. 4:32)
Paul works his way into the practical theology of Ephesians 4 and urges the Ephesians to forgive each other. In verse 32 he says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Did you catch that? What is the basis of your forgiveness? It is the example that God has provided in His forgiveness offered through Christ; He is a forgiving God. To use our previous wording, understanding God’s forgiveness offered in Christ, fuels our forgiveness. And our forgiveness is imitative forgiveness in that we are imitating God’s forgiveness offered to us.
It is no coincidence that Paul says, forgive others by imitating what God has done for you. “Forgive like Him” could easily provided the summary of Ephesians 4:32. Likewise, forgiveness that is true and authentic is an imitative forgiveness because it imitates the forgiveness of God towards us. We cannot deeply and authentically forgive if we have no corresponding knowledge of God’s forgiveness towards us. And this is not just a Pauline observation, either.
Be Holy Like Him (1 Pet. 1:16)
Peter makes similar statements to that of Paul. In his first epistle, he calls the believers to imitate God. In verse 14-16 he says this: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” He urges a personal change through imitation of God—be holy like Him. And then Peter informs that imitation with an Old Testament reference to the holiness of God.
What is Peter suggesting? At the core of being an obedient child is that we are imitating our Father. Therefore, we are not conformed to our ignorance but are to understand that our Father is holy, so we must be holy. Change from Peter’s perspective is that we understand God is holy and imitate that holiness. In order to fight my ignorant passions, I do it with a right understanding of a holy God and then I imitate that holiness.
Show Mercy Like Him (Luke 6:36)
The idea of change through imitation is not unique to the apostles, either. In fact, Jesus calls us to imitation as captured in the Gospel of Luke: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). Implicitly the question is how are we to be merciful? Jesus answers this question by proposing that we are to show mercy by imitating God’s mercy.
Jesus too states the importance of imitation and the way of imitation as being understanding something about God. How do you change? You know God is merciful, and you imitate God’s mercy. This is replete throughout Scripture: walk in light like Him (1 John 1:7), be impartial like Him (James 2), love like Him (1 John 4:16), and, in terms of Jesus, be humble like Him (Phil. 2:5), a servant like Him (Matt. 20) and suffer like Him (1 Pet. 4). The idea is this: gaze on God and then imitate what you see.
Gaze on God and Imitate What You See
Fundamentally, we cannot biblically change without a proper understanding of God (proper, not complete). Therefore, all biblical change starts with a right understanding of God. What do I mean by biblical change? I simply mean, that lasting, personal change that brings honor to God must implicitly or explicitly stem from a right understanding of God to some degree.
I do not mean this to imply that all change necessitates a complete or total understanding of God. However, even the most elementary understanding of God works as the impetus towards change. For instance, if I recognize that God doesn’t like lying (Eph. 4:29) and I attempt to not lie so as to please God, I have just exemplified understanding God better (i.e., He doesn’t like lying) fuels biblical change in my life. I don’t have to fully comprehend the depths of God’s holiness before I can imitate that holiness. Yet, I should seek to understand God better in order to change personally.
A significant amount of imperatives in Scripture are preceded by a reference to the character of God, as noted above. And why is that? Because sanctification means we look more like Jesus daily. We look more like Jesus daily by understanding what that image looks like. To say it negatively, “how can I imitate that which I don’t understand?” Simply put, we can’t. Many times the offers of Scripture say, “Imitate God” in their call for us to change and do what pleases Him. We cannot be restored to the image of God if we have no clue what that image looks like. Therefore, we are to gaze on God and imitate what we see.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1932), 1:56.