In the last few days, a kerfuffle has broken out between members of The Gospel Coalition (and their supporters) on one side (here and here) and Jonathan Merritt (and his supporters, including well-known Pastor Andy Stanley) on the other side (here). The two sides are debating whether or not Jesus really was/is a friend of sinners.
Of course, that question comes within the context of gay rights, including whether or not Jesus would bake a cake for, take pictures at, or otherwise serve at a same-sex wedding. Mr. Merritt and some other Evangelical Christians, including Kirsten Powers (a Fox News contributor) apparently take the position that Jesus would indeed do those things.
Contra, members of The Gospel Coalition, including Joe Carter and Kevin DeYoung, disagree with Merritt’s contention. Into the battle (mostly on Twitter) have entered those who believe that Jesus would hang out with sinners without any strings attached or preconditions (Merritt’s position) and those who believe that there were boundaries that Jesus employed when he ate with sinners (Carter and DeYoung). I would encourage you to read the articles by both sides and draw your own conclusions. I think that both sides make some good points, particularly when it comes to the hypocrisy of some Christians in picking and choosing which sins to judge and which sins to ignore. However, both sides, it seems to me, may miss an even bigger and more important point in this whole debate.
Ever since the popular bracelet, “WWJD” (What Would Jesus Do?) hit the Christian marketplace, it seems that many believers are guided, almost exclusively, by the answer to that question for any and every moral and ethical situation that they find themselves in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but only asking ‘What Would Jesus Do,” misses a key element in the Christian life. It’s not that the question, in and of itself, is a bad one. However, if we limit our inquiry to what Jesus would or would not do, then we miss the more important question that should be asked and answered, “Jesus, what should I do?” That is a much more difficult — and oftentimes messy — question to ask. But, it is not one without an answer.
Whether intentional or unintentional, many Christians seem to limit their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ to what can be gleaned from the Gospels. After all, that’s where we get to view — up close and personal — the life of Jesus. What better way to know what Jesus would do than to study what Jesus did. If Jesus did it, then it must be alright. If Jesus didn’t do it, then it must not be the right thing to do. If Jesus said it, then we can say it. If Jesus didn’t say it, then we better not say it.
There’s just one slight problem (well maybe a couple) with that line of thinking. We are NOT Jesus! We can become more and more like Jesus. We can be conformed to the image of Jesus. We can have the mind of Jesus. But, we will never be Jesus. Which means that we will never be in the exact same position — a real, historical time and place — as Jesus was. We will never encounter the same people, in the same circumstances, that Jesus did.
When we view Jesus’ life — as recorded in the Gospels — we know that everything that Jesus thought, said and did was right. It was perfect. His every encounter with sinners. His every action, including attending the wedding at Cana of Galilee and turning water into wine, eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, and throwing out the money changers from the Temple, was likewise spot on. Even Jesus’ motivations, attitudes, and thoughts were sinless.
How can we take what Jesus did 2,000 years ago and answer the question today, “Jesus, what should I do?” I begin with the truth that Jesus is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” Therefore, what was morally right for Jesus to say and do 2,000 years ago will still be morally right today. In contrast, what was morally wrong for Jesus to say and do 2,000 years ago will still be morally wrong today. There are some things that Jesus said and did that can give us clarity for what we should say and do today. However, just because Jesus didn’t do something does not mean that we shouldn’t. Nor, just because Jesus didn’t say something was wrong (at least as we have recorded in Scripture) does not mean that we are free to do it today.
Instead of looking only to the red letters of Jesus in the Gospels, why not use the totality of Scripture — from Genesis to Revelation — as our guide in answering the questions, “Jesus, what should I do?” If one believes that all of the Bible is “God-breathed” and the infallible, inerrant Word of God (as I do), then doesn’t it make sense to allow God to speak to us through every bit of Scripture? And, when God speaks, whether through the Old Testament or through the non-Gospel portions of the New Testament, He will not give us a contradictory message. We may not always be able to understand what God is trying to tell us, but He is not the “author of confusion.” He will not say one thing in the Old Testament and then contradict Himself in the new (despite what some might think about eating shellfish). The same God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. The Jesus of the Gospels is the Jesus of the letters of Paul and John and Peter.
When we approach the pressing moral issues of the day through the lens of all of Scripture — and not merely through the lens of the Gospels — we will be in a better position to know not only what Jesus would do, but more importantly, what we should do. And, while Jesus never made any mistakes in doing the will of His Father, we will make mistakes daily in what we say and do or in what we don’t say and don’t do. Trying to live like Jesus in our culture today is messy, but no less so that 2,000 years ago. There will be times when we show too much grace (if that’s possible) and not share enough truth. More likely than not, we will be heavy on truth (at least when it comes to sins we don’t approve of like homosexuality) and light on grace.
Maybe Andy Stanley’s message, ‘When Gracie Met Truthie,” was more right than I at first thought (although I still think his illustration was less than perfect). Jesus, who is the perfect embodiment of both grace and truth, was and is a friend of sinners. One doesn’t need to either unnecessarily constrict or expand that truth to conclude that Christians are called to live like Jesus in our culture. Perhaps if we spent more time on trying to figure out what Jesus wants each of us to do, rather than spending so much time trying to figure out what Jesus wants someone else to do, we might be able to live out the answer, even imperfectly, to the question, “Jesus, what do you want me to do?”