"Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children;
"And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour." (Ephesians 5: 1-2)
Here, "followers" renders the Greek word "μιμητής mimétés: an imitator", which the Bible uses seven times (the number of perfection, no less!), always positively in connection with Christ.
When I read passages like this, I used to think that Paul was pressing me to take on an impossible order. Who can imitate Christ? Only Christ Himself, of course.
When the rich man asked Jesus what he could do to inherit eternal life, Jesus lovingly rebuked his assumed presumption:
"Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me." ( Mark 10:21)
Why "lovingly"? Jesus came to die for our sins, to make us one with Him and therefore forever accepted in Him before God, the righteousness of God in Christ. Before He can do that, though, He must expose to us our frail and eternal impossibility of reaching God's standard on our own merits, by our own efforts. Everything that Jesus details here for the rich man to do, would be the very sacrifice that Jesus endured for us, a sacrifice which no one else could do, even if he or she wanted to. Praise God that He sent His Son to raise the requirements of right standing before God to their proper, ultimate, and unreachable standard, that He would do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Therefore, the rich man, like all mankind who has tried to be righteous and upstanding before God on their own ability, was very sad with Jesus' stern requirement:
"And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.
"And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!
"And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10: 22-24)
Jesus rebukes not so much the acquisition of wealth, but rather one's dependence on our own efforts and the rewards which we presume to reap from those accomplishments.
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.
"And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved?
"And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible." (Mark 10: 25-27)
Just as we cannot enter the kingdom of God through our own efforts, we cannot therefore assume that we can imitate Christ through our own efforts, either.
What we could not, God did for us through His Son:
"But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
"Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him." (Romans 5: 8-9)
"And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
"In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ:
"Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead." (Colossians 2: 10-12)
and let us not forget
"Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world." (1 John 4:17)
But let us go further:
"To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (Colossians 1:27)
and of course:
"But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us,
"Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
"And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:" (Ephesians 2: 4-6)
We are as Christ, Christ is in us, and we are in Him. There is no question of our capacity to imitate Christ. In truth, we need only recognize who we are and whose we are:
"Wherefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints,
"Cease not to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers;
"That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him:
"The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints." (Ephesians 1: 15-18)
As God opens the eyes of our understanding, we receive greater revelation of who and whose we are, in Christ, and the Holy Spirit in turn transforms us into greater likeness with Christ:
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Colossians 3:16)
Christ is the Word of God (cf John 1:1), and His work, by the Power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, makes us more like Him:
"But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Imitating Christ is a matter of faith, receiving His Word, which releases transforming power in us. Not by works, but by grace through faith are we saved and sanctified, made more like Jesus, His very imitators, from day to day, from faith to faith, from glory to glory.
Our imitating Christ is not a matter of work, but a matter of faith, or receiving and releasing His Word in our lives: