Thursday, July 23, 2009

“How Should We Then Live” in a "What Would Jesus Do World?"

The 20th century saw many books come and go and unfortunately, many that should have went stayed and others that should have stayed seem to have passed on in the forgotten world of print. There are two books in particular I presently have in mind. The first though originally written and released one chapter at a time in 1896, did not seem to find the light of full publishing until early in the 20th century. The title to the book was In His Steps, by Charles M. Sheldon. The popularity and influence of the book is without question, and some estimate that early in the 20th century it was outsold by the Bible alone. The book tells the story of a pastor by the name of Henry Maxwell who catches a vision for the radical transformation of society in challenging his congregation to evaluate every decision that they are faced with using the question: What would Jesus do? The book was unfortunately “re-popularized” in the early 90's when it was rewritten and offered to the public again, this time by the great grandson of Sheldon, Garrett W. Sheldon. Many of you have probably read and been greatly influenced by the work as I was early on in my own growth in Christ. It danger is that it encourages an extremely moralistic ethic and mystical approach to discerning the will of God that a detached from the will of God clearly set forth in the Scriptures. Church history has proven its dangers in demonstrating Sheldon’s socialist leanings with his impact on the rise of the Social Gospel movement with Walter Rauschenbusch, feminism, liberal Christianity, his kinship with the deeper life moved, and his influence on the rise of the carnal Christian doctrine in the church of today. The impact that his work and ideas have had on the contemporary Evangelical movement with its mystical ethic may have to wait a few more generations to be fully known.

In Sheldon’s own words Jesus was to be seen as “the standard of human conduct for the entire human race.” In a vision at the end of the book Sheldon has the pastor Henry Maxwell who is enveloped in a dream like trance envision seeing the motto “What would Jesus do?” inscribed over every church door and every church members heart. He saw Christians forming societies all over the world marching and carrying banner which read “What would Jesus do?” This, Sheldon believed, would lead to nothing short of what he referred to as...“the regeneration of Christendom.”

What’s the problem: this is not the gospel! This is not the banner of the Church! This will not lead to the regeneration of Christendom. It will lead her into moralism - which in the end will lead to her discouragement, decay and eventual demise. Or on the other hand, it may in fact lead to her deception, self-sufficiency, and pride.

Before this turns into a book review of Sheldon’s work - I need to make mention of another title from the 20th century. In 1976, Francis A. Schaeffer wrote, what is probably his best known work, How Should We Then Live? In the opening lines of Schaeffer’s work we read these lines:

There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind - what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of a dictators’s sword.

People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of these presuppositions than even they themselves may realize. By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic world view, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists. Peoples’s presuppositions lay a grid for all they bring forth into the external world. Their presuppositions also provide the basis for their values and therefore the basis for their decisions.

“As a man thinketh, so is he,” is really most profound. An individual is not just the product of the forces around him. He has a mind, an inner world. Then, having thought, a person can bring forth actions into the external world and thus influence it. People are apt to look at the outer theater of action, forgetting the actor who “lives in the mind” and who therefore is the true actor in the external world. The inner thought world determines the outward action.

Most people catch their presuppositions from their family and surrounding society the way a child catches measles. But people with more understanding realize that their presuppositions should be chosen after a careful consideration of what world view is true. When all is done, when all the alternative have been explored, “not many men are in the room” - that is, although world views have many variation, there are not many basic world views or basic presuppositions.

Schaeffer advocates a life that springs from a world view and the world-view to which he refers is the Christian world-view. A view of the world that is saturated with God-centeredness. A view of the world that sees man as inherently sinful and incapable of “following the example” of Jesus apart from a radical work of transforming grace. Notice that the title to Schaeffer’s work is not “How should we live?” But rather: “How Should We Then Live?” Everything hinges on the “then.” Then - then after seeing our present state, then after seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ that is help out for us in the gospel, then after having come to a point of radical life transformation in the great work of Christ in the gospel - then and only then - can we effectively answer the question with any hope of truly fulfilling what we hear in the word-saturated answer. At the heart of Schaeffer’s question is not “What Would Jesus Do?” Rather - at the heart of his question is a radically redirected thought: “What Did Jesus Do?” The truth of the matter is - I can’t do what Jesus did - that was why he came - to do what only he in fact could do. And it is what he did that needs to be the consuming passion of my life to see, savor and rejoice in that I might, by that very reality, be transformed through having my mind renewed with the beauty of the gospel and then be moved and empowered to live in a way that pleases God and demonstrates the glory of his power, not simply my personal resolve.

Another 20th century writer J. Gresham Machen in his work: The Virgin Birth of Christ, once stated the following along these lines:

It seems never to have occurred to the adherents of this religion [an imitation of Jesus religion] that there is such a thing as sin, and that sin places an awful gulf between man and God. But those convictions, though they are unpopular at the present time, are certainly quite central in the Christian religion.

From the beginning Christianity was the religion of the broken heart; it is based upon the conviction that there is an awful gulf between man and God which none but God can bridge. The Bible tells us how this gulf was bridged; and that means the Bible is a record of facts.

Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus? In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair. We Christians are not interested merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; in a triumphant indicative!

The life that we are called to is not a life of merely imitating Christ - the imitation of Christ is not the gospel. I don’t need a Jesus rooted in history and one who works out redemption in history to “imitate Jesus.” The imitation of Christ does not depend on trustworthy history - but the work of Christ in the gospel does depend on true and factual history. It is this historical work of Christ, that we call the work of the gospel, that must so capture my mind and heart that I become rooted in it as I seek to move forward in following Jesus.