There has been no small debate over the latter part of the 20th Century, and the first decade of the 21st Century, as to whether Christ is to be viewed as Savior or Example. Theologians have lined up in ranks to defend one or the other of these biblical views of our Lord. It is evident from the New Testament that Christ is both Savior and examplar, but it is not an easy task to explain–and hold together–these two truths about Jesus Christ. They are juxtaposed so carefully in the epistles that we would do well to consider one or two of the more significant passages in which they are set down in order. Perhaps the clearest text in the Scriptures concerning the precise relationship between the two is I Peter 2:18-25. Having spent the larger part of the first two chapters expounding the blessings that believers have through the saving work of Christ, the apostle went on to make the following charge:
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps, “Who committed no sin, Nor was deceit found in His mouth”; who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. sums up the importance of the passage in his article “The Usefulness of the Cross” when he writes:
Too much of church history, in considering the significance of the cross, has gotten trapped in a false dilemma, the dilemma between Atonement (Christ as Mediator) and conformity (Christ as example). The requisite balance is no where more decisively and effectively struck than in I Peter 2:21–25. Christ suffered, Peter says, “for you,” and in back of that “for you” lies all the atoning uniqueness and exclusive justifying efficacy of that suffering. Again, Peter tells us, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” and “by his wounds you have been healed,” and at that, not as if he were one sheep among the rest, but as he was and is the Shepherd and Overseer of the sheep who were going astray. At the same time, however, Peter is intent on showing that a purpose, a particular utility of Christ’s sufferings and death is that “we might die to sin and live for righteousness” and to “leave you an example for you to follow in his footsteps.” And those footsteps lead, as Paul tells us, into “the fellowship of his sufferings” and “being conformed to his death” (Phil. 3: 10).
Consider the apostles structure in 1 Peter 2:21-25, where these two all-important aspects of Christ’s work are juxtaposed. We discover in the way in which Peter introduces and develops this subject that he shrouds the imperative in the indicates of the Gospel: INDICATIVE: “Christ also suffered for us…” IMPERATIVE: “…leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps…” INDICATIVE: “who Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree…by whose stipes we are healed.” There is an inclusio in the pericope–if we consider the fact that Peter walks into the exposition of Christ as example–by first setting Him forth as Savior in 2:21 and then picks right back up on His redemptive work in 2:24. This is no insignificant detail. The priority is laid on the redemptive work of Christ as the foundation of the exemplaristic role He plays. He is both Savior and example–by virtue of our union with Him–but He is foundationally and fundamentally a Savior. His example means nothing if He is not first and foremost Savior.
I like the way Sinclair Ferguson answers this question in the short clip below:
As this subject gets more refined treatment in light of the recent developments and emphases on the subject of union with Christ, I want to raise one final question for further study: If Christ is equally Example–as He is preeminently Savior–what exemplaristic role does He play now that He is reigning in glory and ever living to make intercession for us? Can we say that His exemplaristic role is as central as his saving role, since He plays a unique and undergirding role of our life of sanctification as our glorified Mediator? Is He an example in His reigning in heaven? Surely He is the example of the One who overcame and was glorified, since the Scriptures teach that the same will be true of us. There can be no question whether He is our example or not; however, the question remains, “What place does the exemplaristic role of Christ hold in the Christian system in relationship to Him being our Savior?