Editors’ note: 

This is an excerpt from The Gospel Project for Adults Bible Study from LifeWay. The Gospel Project is an ongoing 13-week Bible study curriculum for all age groups that helps people see Scripture as one over-arching story that points to what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Find out more and download one month to review free at www.gospelproject.com.

“What would Jesus do?” Though these words may bring back memories of WWJD bracelets in the 1990s, the phrase was actually made popular by Charles Sheldon’s classic book In His Steps, first published in 1897.

Sheldon’s fictional story begins as the Reverend Henry Maxwell, pastor of First Church of Raymond, seeks the quiet solitude of his study at home in order to prepare Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 2:21: “For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Maxwell is interrupted when a young man in his early 30s, disheveled, dirty, and homeless comes to his door. Anxious to return to his study, the pastor offers little help and wishes him well.

Much to Maxwell’s surprise, the same homeless man stands up to speak to the congregation at the end of the sermon on imitating Christ. He asks: “I was wondering, as I sat there under the gallery, if what you call following Jesus is the same thing as what he taught. What did he mean when he said, ‘Follow me?’ The minister said . . . that it was necessary for the disciple of Jesus to follow his steps, and he said the steps were obedience, faith, love, and imitation. But I did not hear him tell you just what he meant that to mean, especially the last step. What do Christians mean by following the steps of Jesus?”

While still speaking, the young man collapses to the floor. Maxwell and his wife take him into their home to care for him, but he dies a few days later. Moved by this experience, Maxwell steps into the pulpit on the following Sunday and challenges the congregation: “Our motto will be, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Our aim will be to act just as he would if he were in our places, regardless of immediate results. In other words, we propose to follow Jesus’ steps as closely and as literally as we believe he taught his disciples to do. And those who volunteer to do this will pledge themselves for an entire year, beginning with today, so to act.”

Unintended Result

Though the idea of asking what Jesus would do is good, Christians too often apply this “imitation of Christ” only to ethical situations. The unintended result is that Jesus gets reduced to a teacher of morals. Of course, it is true that we are called to imitate Christ. But too often, we don’t think carefully about what this imitation looks like and what it will cost us.

Imitation of Christ requires meditation on Christ. If we are to know what it means to follow Christ, then we must seek to study Christ—-his life and teaching and, most importantly, his death and resurrection. Therefore, if we are to imitate Christ, we need to ask a different question—-not just “What would Jesus do?” but “What has Jesus done?” Once we understand what Jesus has done, we can best understand how to represent him and follow him faithfully. By focusing on what Jesus has done, we will be able to see the bigger picture of God’s plan to glorify himself through both the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Asking what Jesus has done also moves us to ask, “Why? Why did Jesus humble himself, becoming obedient, even unto a harsh and shameful death? By submitting to the Father’s will, Jesus revealed the Father’s heart of love for his fallen creation. Though we are the rebels in God’s story, God has spoken to us of his love, mercy, and grace in Jesus’ death. To be sure, God has also spoken to us about his justice and righteousness in Jesus’ death as well.

When we realize that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, the natural question is, “What will be our response?” The appropriate response, of course, is repentance (turning away from our rebellion and our desire to be our own kings) and faith (turning to Christ, bowing down, and acknowledging him as our King). The good news is that those who trust in Christ are exalted with Christ. However, those who reject Christ’s rule will receive the full cup of God’s wrath (Col. 3:5-7). So then, the question every person must grapple with is not “What would Jesus do?” but rather “What will you do with Jesus?”