WWJD—What would Jesus do? We see this question everywhere, from car bumper stickers to Internet memes to the once-ubiquitous wristbands. And it is a fair question. If, in every situation, we were to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do,” and then live that way, we would be doing pretty well. After all, Jesus was perfect—he never sinned, always honored God and loved perfectly.
Many of us connect this question to discipleship. And, of course, that makes sense. It’s a good goal. The Bible tells us in several places to emulate Christ. After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he told them, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
“Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children,” the apostle Paul writes, “and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2). (WWJD itself was popularized by Charles Sheldon’s 1897 bestselling novel In His Steps.)
In many ways, it is right to ask, repeatedly, what Jesus would do. This is how a good disciple of Christ will live. However, this way of viewing discipleship has its shortcomings.
We are emphatically not Jesus—we will never, no matter how hard we try, do what Jesus would do. Jesus, as Tim Geddert has written in a previous issue, is the “divine-human” who lived and died for the sins of the world. That is a burden we cannot bear.
We need more
And while in many matters the answer to this question is simple—no, Jesus would not watch pornography, and yes, he would give generously—many times the answer is not so simple. Would Jesus take this job or that job? Would Jesus buy this house now or save to buy that house? Or would he just give everything away? Would Jesus support the political party more committed to historic Christian concerns regarding sex or the one more committed to historic Christian concerns regarding justice and poverty? Or would he support neither? Such questions, and others like them, have no immediate answer. It turns out, WWJD is not enough. We need more.
What, then, do we need? If our motivation for doing good is so that we can gain honor and respect, make friends or even change the world for the better, we will always fail—we are inherently sinful creatures. This includes more evident sins: We sin when we lie about whether we are too busy to help someone else. We sin when we watch pornography. We sin when we swear at members of our family. We sin when we belittle other people in order to puff ourselves up.
In the same way, however, we also sin when we think impure thoughts about someone else. We sin when we rage as someone cuts us off on the highway. We sin when we inwardly scoff at someone else. We even sin when we do the right thing for less-than-pure motives.
We cannot get it right
Author Francis Spufford, in describing our inherently sinful state, puts actual murder in the same family of actions as “telling a story at a dinner party at the expense of an absent mutual friend, a story which you know will cause pain when it gets back to them but you tell it anyway, because it’s just very, very funny.”
One of these things takes a life; the other takes a piece of one’s soul. Both fall short of the glory of God. No matter how hard we try, on our own, we cannot get it right. As Romans 3:20 says, “No one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather through the law we become conscious of our sin.”
A better question, therefore, might be WDJD, What did Jesus do? Here is what Jesus did:
- he came to live and die, for you and me;
- he endured shame, torture and the crucifixion, for you and me;
- he “descended to the dead,” as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, for you and me;
- he rose again, for you and me;
- and if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, we can be saved, adopted as God’s children and enter his eternal kingdom, where there is no weeping, sorrow, death, or pain.
What did Jesus do? He did everything for us! This is truly good news.
Ultimately, not only is there incredible hope found in this gospel, but this gospel is far more transformative than the alternative. Anyone can ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?” After all, he may have just been a good, moral teacher. If we simply try to become like Jesus, we will never succeed—we will fall short again and again, and we will bear the weight of that failure.
Becoming like Jesus
But, if we believe in Jesus as he has revealed himself, we don’t have to try to become like Jesus—he already became like us in every way, except without sin, so that we could become like him! Gregory of Nazianzus, the fourth-century theologian, boldly exhorts us in this way: “Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. … He assumed what is worse that he might give what is better.”
This does not happen through striving to be good. It happens through receiving the grace of God through Jesus Christ and what he accomplished for us. In the end, becoming like Christ does not happen through trying to emulate him. It happens by grace. God makes us like him when we believe in him.
It is only through becoming a son or a daughter of God and experiencing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that we can become holy. For all those who call Jesus Christ Lord “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). His adopted children reflect him, as if looking in a mirror. Such transformation from sinners to “little Christs,” to use C.S. Lewis’s phrase, is not some dim hope. It is gospel reality. Believe in Jesus, and it is true for you.
By all means, do what Jesus did. But do so while resting on what he did for you.
Tony Petersen is a campus pastor at Mountain View Church in Fresno, California, and adjunct history professor at Fresno State University. He and his wife, Roaxanna, have three daughters.