At this point, “What Would Jesus Do?” seems more at home in a history museum than on a bracelet. The 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 fell apart or were lost.
Eventually, though, I joined the ranks of theologically-minded people for whom the WWJD saying became the butt of jokes—we dismissed it as an example of trite, Christian bookstore faith. Our doctrinally informed response was that Jesus did stuff we 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 fit on a bracelet, or because obeying Jesus’s commands is a bad idea. 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.
Insisting that Jesus isn’t our ultimate example because we can’t do all the things he did confuses his character with his calling.
Jesus’s 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 marrying no woman, raising no children, traveling the countryside hanging out with 12 buddies, and getting into trouble with the law.”
Charitably, evangelicals in the 1990s were saying we should ask how Jesus would behave if he were in our circumstances, taking into account what we know of his character and commands. This sort of imitation of Christ is explicitly taught in Scripture (John 13:13–17; 1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1–2; 1 John 2:6; and 1 Pet. 2:21). The very name “Christian” implies an identification with Christ that goes beyond mere belief or allegiance. We are to be “little Christs.”
It’s true that we can’t imitate God in all of his attributes, but no one has ever suggested we could. We are, however, called to be human in the way God Incarnate was. There’s a big difference. In The Wonderful Works of God, Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck gives an especially helpful reminder of how central Jesus’s humanity is 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’s three offices of prophet, priest, and king are human offices to which we too, in our appropriate way, are called. Bavinck, as is so often the case, is worth quoting:
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. (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 have 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.
Invitation to Imitation
The reason we are right to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” is that Jesus came not only to serve as a sacrifice for sin and 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. Christ’s role as the Last Adam means he has given us a renewed 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.
It turns out the 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.