Saturday December 4, 2021
In Defense of WWJD | A Reflection on the Interview with Thomas Price
At this point, the “What Would Jesus Do?” slogan seems more at home in a history museum than on a bracelet. This relic of 1990s evangelicalism caught on about the time I was finishing elementary school, and I dutifully joined in the trend and wore the letters in several colors, often to AWANA, until they all fell apart or were lost.
For many who went on to become interested in theology, the WWJD saying became the butt of jokes along with that Christian t-shirt that parodied the Abercrombie and Fitch logo with an allusion to the feeding of the five thousand that said, “A Breadcrumb and Fish,” (go ahead and groan). For me and many others, WWJD became a typical example of Christian bookstore theology. Our much more informed response was that Jesus did stuff we as Christians can’t. He performed miracles, forgave sins, authoritatively interpreted the Scriptures, and died to save the world. Instead of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” we newly-minted theologians explained, Christians should ask, “what did Jesus command us to do?”
Looking back, I’m not so sure that was the right response, and not just because “WDJCUTD” would be harder to remember or fit on a bracelet, and not because obeying Jesus’ commands is at all a bad idea. I actually think our criticism of WWJD was misguided on a more fundamental level. Insisting that Jesus isn’t our ultimate example because we can’t do all the things He did confuses His character with His calling, and more importantly, confuses His humanity with His Divinity.
Jesus’ life was not a screenplay we must follow. That was never what anyone who wore a WWJD bracelet meant by it. They weren’t claiming we must all, as one friend memorably put it, “strive toward a life of singleness, marrying no woman, raising no children, traveling the countryside hanging out with twelve buddies, and getting into trouble with the law.” Charitably, evangelicals in the nineties were saying that we should ask how Jesus would behave if He were in our circumstances, taking into account what we know of His character and commands. And this sort of imitation of Christ as a Person is explicitly taught in Scripture. John 13:13-17, 1 Corinthians 11:1, Ephesians 5:1-2, 1 John 2:6, and 1 Peter 2:21 are just a few examples. The very name “Christian” implies an identification with Christ that goes beyond mere belief or allegiance, reaching to our very persons and characters. We are to be, as I’ve heard it put, “little Christs.”
Second, it’s true that we can’t be God, but no one has ever suggested we can. We are, however, absolutely called to be human in the way God Incarnate was. There’s a big difference. In his “The Wonderful Works of God,” Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck gives an especially helpful reminder of how central Jesus’ humanity was to His mission, and how essential it is to our salvation that we partake of this humanity. In his chapter on Christ’s humiliation, Bavinck points out that Jesus’ three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King are human offices to which we, too, in our appropriate way, are called. He is, as is so often the case, worth quoting fully, here:
“In the unfolding of the image of God, in the harmonious development of all his gifts and power, in his exercise of the three offices of prophet, priest, and king lay the purpose and destiny of man. But man violated this high calling. And that is why Christ came to earth: to again exhibit the true image of man and to bring his destiny to perfect fulfillment. The doctrine of the three offices lays a firm connection between nature and grace, creation and redemption, Adam and Christ. The first Adam is type, herald, and prophecy of the last Adam, and the Last is the counterpart and fulfillment of the first.” (page 316)
If we fail to recognize that Christ was and is the ideal human—not just God with us, but the fulfillment of all that our first father and our whole race were meant to be—we get a Docetic savior. This superhuman phantasm may be instrumental to our salvation, but he is irrelevant to our sanctification. We may claim he spares us from the wrath of God, but he remains wholly alien, offering us no help in repairing our sinful race or reviving this broken creation.
The reason we are right to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?” is that Jesus came not merely to serve as a sacrifice for sin or to issue moral commands, but to personally embody and restore the image of God in man. This is also why the Incarnation matters so much, and why I greatly enjoyed my conversation this week on Upstream with theology professor and podcaster Thomas Price. As we explored the deep meaning of Advent, Dr. Price emphasized that Christ’s role as the Last Adam means He has given us a new way of being human. It makes sense to model our lives after Christ’s because in the truest possible sense, Christ lived our kind of life, and He openly invites us to imitate His obedience.
To anyone who objects that Christ was God, and that it must have therefore been easy for Him, Dr. Price points to the Scriptures, which assure us Jesus was truly man, “made fully like us, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest”—one who “was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin.” And to those who object that Jesus had the power to do the impossible, the Scriptures reply that “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you…” Which means that imitating Christ is not only possible, but for those who share in His Spirit, inevitable.
It turns out that younger me wasn’t as good a theologian as I imagined, and the Christian bookstores weren’t always wrong. “What Would Jesus Do?” is a question that should always be at the front of our minds—even if we no longer wear it on our wrists.