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