“I’m Actually a Better Follower of Jesus Than Most Christians…”

buddy Jesus

This is how most Americans imagine Jesus.

I get into conversations with non-traditional believers and skeptics on a decently regular basis and, given what I do for a living, almost inevitably the subject of  Jesus and Christianity comes up. (“So what do you do, Derek?” “Well since you asked…”)

Depending on who I’m talking to, the conversation goes in one or more of a few familiar directions. One fairly common one goes something like:

“Well, even though I don’t go to church, or pray, or believe Christian dogma, or do anything particularly religious, I am actually a better follower of Jesus than most Christians.You see, I try to follow more closely to Jesus’ teachings on love, grace, forgiveness, and caring about the poor than they do. So really, I’m like Jesus where it counts most.”

What should we think of this claim?

Well, at one level, I’ve no doubt that for many this is true. Christianity teaches that all are created in the Image of God, so even though the Image might be marred or distorted, I have no trouble recognizing that a good many non-Christians live lives filled with beauty, love, compassion, and decency that probably surpasses my own.

Now, if we’re being honest, often this protest comes from a deluded self-righteousness, or as an insecure self-justification. That being said, it’s pretty easy for me to think of a number of very decent, moral, courageous, non-Christian people whose lives may be imitated to great benefit by Christians in their attempt to follow Jesus.

At another level though, this statement is entirely misleading. Once again, J. Gresham Machen points out the main problem with this line of thought:

Jesus is an example, moreover, not merely for the relations of man to man but also for the relation of man to God; imitation of Him may extend and must extend to the sphere of religion as well as to that of ethics. Indeed religion and ethics in Him were never separated; no single element in His life can be understood without reference to His heavenly Father. Jesus was the most religious man who ever lived; He did nothing and said nothing and thought nothing without the thought of God. If His example means anything at all it means that a human life without the conscious presence of God − even though it be a life of humanitarian service outwardly like the ministry of Jesus − is a monstrous perversion. If we would follow truly in Jesus’ steps, we must obey the first commandment as well as the second that is like unto it; we must love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. –Christianity & Liberalism, pg. 84

See, leaving aside the fact that a great number of the things that Jesus tells us to do are those “religious” things like praying and worshiping with the community, the main problem with this line of thinking is that it rips out the heart of Jesus’ ethics. It focuses mainly on a select group of things that Jesus said to do, but it misses why he says to do them.

Machen calls our attention to the fact that the heart of Jesus’ ethics was his religion, the perfect love of the Father, and a desire to glorify him in all things (Matt 5:16, 48). You can’t read the Sermon on the Mount and escape the constant reference to “the Father” (Matt 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14, 15, 18, 26. 32; 7:11, 21) and the theocentric nature of all of our righteousness. Jesus is remarkably clear that all of his ‘ethics’, his morality, flows from his relationship of loving trust of God; so if you’re truly going to “follow him”, then your obedience has to have a deep love for the Father at the center of it.

The upshot of all this is that simply doing moral things doesn’t mean you’re really “following Jesus”–his own words rule that out. This should be a sobering thought even for Christians. Far too many of us have God’s glory or God’s delight nowhere on our radar when considering our moral choices. In light of Jesus’ words, both the believer and the non-believer who claims to imitate Jesus, should stop and think, “If the glory of the Father, the love of the Father, is at the heart of what Jesus words and actions, why isn’t it at the heart of mine?”

Soli Deo Gloria

2 thoughts on ““I’m Actually a Better Follower of Jesus Than Most Christians…”

  1. I was wondering if you could write something or give me some advice about what to do right know. I love God but I feel like I’m stuck in a rut in my faith and that I haven’t felt the presence of my Savior in a while. Do you have any tangible suggestions for how I can refresh and renew my relationship with Christ, even with a busy schedule?

    • Hey Diana, I might write something in the future on that because it’s a good question. To start though, I’d probably ask what your spiritual life looks like right now. Really, a lot of things are unique to you that general advice won’t hit. Still, I’ll give it a quick shot:

      There are at least 3 reasons you could be feeling dry, or a bit distant: you, the devil, or God’s hand. Now, those three aren’t totally unrelated, but still sometimes it’s helpful to think them out.

      You — Let’s be honest, sometimes it’s us. We let some kind of persistent sin that wounds our conscience in our life which would then make us feel distant from God. Or, sometimes the general rush and busyness itself is a lack of Sabbath that is killing our spiritual life. Sometimes to repent is just to cut some things out.
      Also, let’s be honest, there are just rhythms to the spiritual life. Just like any relationship, there are times when you’re super-close and excited, and other times when you’re just there and that’s okay. You don’t want to stay there, but you just have to know that all Christians walk through this in different parts of their life.

      The Devil- I don’t talk about spiritual warfare much, but it’s there. The saints are often “sore tempted and tried” and our enemy would love to attack our consciences and make us feel distant.

      God — Old saints have talked about the dark nights of the soul when it seems that God has removed his hand, or makes his presence less felt for various reasons. The Psalms show tons of evidence of this. In fact, one reason that he allows this sometimes is that we might long after him, realize how much we need him and seek him all the further.

      Where does that leave you? Well, not really knowing your situation I can only give pretty general advice, but here are a few steps you might take:

      1. Grab coffee with a good, spiritual friend and talk through your life right now. If there’s any sin, confess it and repent. I mean, it totally might not be, but sometimes it’s there. Otherwise, ask them for encouragement and prayer. Not just general “I will pray for you” prayer, but prayer right then and there. Pray for yourself, against spiritual warfare, and for the Spirit to work in you. Pray that one constantly and that your heart would be dwelling on the Gospel. t.

      2. Look at your schedule and edit. Sometimes it seems impossible. There’s no way you could ever trim it down, it appears. Sometimes the season is actually like that. But most of the time there is at least one thing that I think of as necessary that could be dropped or toned back. Cut it and replace it with rest, but meditative rest in God. (Prayer, scripture, worship, etc.)

      3. I don’t know if you drive around a lot or have time to listen to podcasts, but I get a lot of encouragement and spiritual strength from sermons that point me to the Gospel. I recommend these free Tim Keller sermons to download and listen in an mp3 player or just at work or something. http://sermons2.redeemer.com/redeemer-free-sermon-resource

      4. Of course, there is adding a daily devotional time, seriously, 10-15 minutes into your rhythm. It doesn’t work immediately, but that constant stream of sitting, praying, reading a passage of scripture and just meditating on it for a bit can do serious work on your heart over time. Meditate constantly throughout the day on the Cross, the Resurrection, and the fact that you’ve been united to Christ. Pick something that you do every day a lot and tell yourself that every time you do that thing, (getting in your car, washing your hands, whatever) you’re going to quickly pray and remember some gift of the gospel (forgiveness, grace, righteousness, acceptance, love, beauty, future hope, the church, a new family, etc.).

      5. I don’t know how your church life is, but if you haven’t been, the corporate worship with the people of God and the sacraments and usual means of grace are there for a reason.

      I don’t know if this helps, but these are some things off the top of my head without knowing your personal situation. I pray this helps. Thanks for stopping by Diana.

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