I’ve been using Paul’s Epistles to argue against mimicking the life of Jesus as he is depicted in the Gospels. That doesn’t mean the two parts New Testament contradict. The Gospels tell about Christ’s earthly ministry, his death, and resurrection. After Jesus came back to life, everything changed including the way we view him and other people. The letters of Paul written to disciples who’d undergone the change. Paul describes the difference in these words:
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:15-17 NIV emphasis mine)
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus has transcended the one configuration of his earthly life to become a “life-giving Spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45) manifesting himself in an infinitely diverse set of expressions through all who trust in him. Notice that Paul didn’t say that everyone ought to be a new creation, but that they are. Renewal is past perfect – perfect because God has done it in the past. (Okay, it’s cheesy. Sorry.)
Now, spiritual progress manifests itself in us as we accept that which is already true of us. Rather than attempting to remediate our deficiencies or aspire to others’ merits, we rest by faith in what we already are and in doing so, find it increasingly so in our experience. This is the process of spiritual growth described by Paul:
Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:15-18 NIV)
Faith looks into Scripture (in this case the Old Testament) to see Christ there. It’s not a human biography, but a portrait of God – a coded image of Christ that reflects what we are becoming. Because he’s doing the work, we progress ever upward “with ever-increasing glory” instead of undulating on a sine wave of effort and exhaustion.
The WWJD ethic would have each person comb the Gospels to ascertain just how much more they need to do to be like the man, Jesus of Nazareth. God would have each person contemplate Christ in all of Scripture and find in him the person they’re destined to become.
Rather than commanding us to conform ourselves to the example of Jesus, God puts within us the essence of Christ. That life springing up from within will produce a unique version of God’s Son. As John Oman said it:
The quality of all He said and did was derived straight from His amazing insight, which was just perfect love. Though echoed to the letter, therefore, the soul of it would still be wanting, and would no more be His example than a death-mask a living face. Our life also, if it is really to be living, must, like His, follow our own insight. As His own understanding of God’s love was the fulfilment of His law, so our own understanding of it alone can be the fulfilment of ours.¹
God is love. The essence of the person who was God in flesh is divine love. We take that love as our own when we let ourselves be perfectly loved. That is, when we believe the Good News that God sent his beloved Son to willingly, lovingly die for our sins and to rise again for our sakes. Love, the divine DNA, enters our hearts through faith. Then, having seen God in the face of his Son, we recognize that visage in all of Scripture. Reading the Bible becomes communion with God and his Son.
If we go to the Bible looking for a standard of conduct, we reject the very trusting faith by which we received the divine DNA in the first place. For some, not having a prescribed standard is a terrifying thought. But if it’s not scary, it’s not faith. A skeptic might think I’m making up an “easy believism” version of Christianity by side-stepping the requirements of the Bible. Thing is, I got this from the Bible. Look at these words from Paul in Galatians 5:4-6:
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (NIV)
The letter to the Galatians was written some time around 49 CE. The earliest Gospel was penned around 65. Both were written to people who were already living the Christian life. Christianity doesn’t arise from the New Testament. The New Testament arose from a community of people already transformed by faith in the gospel. Unless we understand this, we’ll turn the example and words of Christ into a new law and the affect will be the same as the Galatians experienced.
This is why the shine wears off of Christianity for so many new believers. They start out energized by the love flowing through them by grace through faith, but then they encounter the codified Jesus of the WWJD approach. They see how far they fall short and exert effort to span the distance only to fail time and again. That failure makes them feel unloved and the flow of grace gets severed.
We must stop asking, “What would Jesus do?” if we’re going to become like Jesus.
We must also stop asking, “What would Jesus do?” so we can obey Jesus’ commands which are simply believe in him and love each other.
Since God both accepts and grows each believer in his or her own way, we can banish any tendency toward comparison or judgment in favor of familial loyalty. I’m an only child, so I never learned to live with siblings, but I do have four kids. As I’ve mentioned, they’re very different from each other. I can tell you that nothing would hurt my father heart more than to hear my kids arguing over which of them really belong in my family. Nothing would give me more joy than to see them band together under the truth that they all have an equal share of my love.
But, love can’t be compelled by any external standard. We can’t love because he said so. We can’t love because he or anyone else has. We can only give love that we have first received. We receive love as we trust that we have been and are loved.
John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,”² said it this way:
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. (1 John 4:12-17 NIV)
- Oman, John. Grace and Personality (Kindle Locations 2862-2866). Kindle Edition.
- This phrase appears five times in the Gospel of John (13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20) and is commonly thought to be the way the author referred to himself.