I argued theology recently with a clergy acquaintance who said that he would continue to follow Jesus—and teach others to do the same—even if the classic Christian doctrines were wrong (not to mention the Bible, from which these doctrines derive) and Jesus were merely human. When I asked him why, he said that his personal experience has taught him that following Jesus is the path to joy and fulfillment.
“But you can’t really say that, can you?” I said. “Because if your personal experience is based on anything real—and you aren’t merely playing mind games—then Jesus must be God.” I went on to argue that if Jesus isn’t God, then Christ’s death was meaningless, since only God can impute our sins on Himself and suffer the penalty for them. And if that didn’t happen, as Paul says, we are still in our sins. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor 15:18-19).
(Yes, I realize that Paul is talking about resurrection here, but for him the resurrection only has meaning in relation to Christ’s atoning death on the cross. As he says, “I resolved to know nothing but Christ and him crucified.” The cross is the center of the gospel, not the resurrection.)
When my friend talked about “following Jesus,” he mostly meant obeying Jesus’ ethical teaching. He cited the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25 and Jesus’ foot-washing in John 13: We ought to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned, he said. We ought love others as Christ loved us. (To which I said, citing Romans 7, “Good luck with that!”)
Apart from Christ’s atoning death on the cross, however, which is made possible by the fact that God himself was dying for us, following Jesus’ ethical demands are impossible. For example, when my clergy friend reads the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, does he not first recognize, with terror, how much he’s like a goat rather than a sheep? And when he reads John 13, does he not sympathize with Peter’s objection that Jesus wash not only his feet but “also my hands and my head”?
Our primary need, as Peter rightly understands, is to be rescued from our sins, not to be given a new set of commands to follow, no matter how good these commands are! This was the angel’s message to Joseph in the annunciation of Matthew 1: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).
Besides, why would a minister of the gospel even entertain the thought of following Jesus even if…?
Well, I think I know… It’s a hedge against doubt and fear. Doubt about the truth of God’s Word and fear that we’re wasting our lives—especially us pastors of all people! We had to pay for a master’s degree to do this job—not to mention the opportunity cost of failing to find more lucrative work! If Christianity isn’t true, at least “following Jesus” remains a worthwhile endeavor.
Not for me… I would not follow Jesus if he isn’t God. As Lewis famously said, if he isn’t God, he’s a liar or lunatic—not someone to whom we can entrust our lives. If Jesus isn’t God, I freely admit I’m wasting my life. I am “most to be pitied.”
So it’s a good thing that Jesus is God! I believe it, and I happily and passionately defend it. I pray that God will strengthen the faith of any of my fellow clergy who doubt. I pray that they’ll share my convictions about the trustworthiness of God’s Word. I pray—as I told my friend, alluding to Paul in Acts 26—that he and the rest of my fellow clergy would “become like me, except for these chains”—the chains in my case being whatever prevents me from being a more winsome, at times less angry, messenger.
Help me, Jesus! Thank God for the cross!