What Would Jesus Do?

by Pastor Gary L. Johnson



“What would Jesus do?” Before delving into this most recent example of how so much of popular evangelicalism tends to always be striking the wrong note, we can begin to address the question by making some very obvious inquires. Which Jesus are we talking about here? The Jesus of the Mormons? (Did you know that Mormons also wear the WWJD bracelets?) Or maybe the Jesus of the Jehovah Witnesses or the one that recently emerged dressed in Gnostic garb from the findings of the notorious Jesus Seminar? It is critically important that we determine which particular Jesus we are talking about. After all, the apostle Paul does warn us that there is more than one Jesus (2 Cor. 11:4). We simply cannot assume the actions of any person before we know who that person actually is. Having put the crucial issue on the table, the next thing we need to do is determine the basis for asking the question in the first place. Why do we want to know about what the Jesus of the New Testament record would do in any given situation that confronts us today? This question presumes that we actually know (in some detail) what Jesus really did do. This means that we are going to need to have a fairly comprehensive working knowledge of the life of Jesus as set forth in the four gospels. I venture to suggest, however, that the great majority of the WWJD devotees have, at best, a very sketchy grasp of chronological events in the life of Christ. Most Christians, sadly, know only a few isolated events in the life of Jesus and even here they rarely grasp the biblical import of those narratives.

These documents tell us, among other things, that Jesus fasted for long periods of time (Matt. 4:2); that He often rose early for extended times of prayer (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16); He never sinned (John 8:46; Heb. 4:15); and He perfectly and completely kept the Law (Matt. 5:17; John 17:4; Heb. 10:7). By the way, on the last point, it should be noted that even though Jesus had some very harsh things to say about how the Pharisees corrupted the fourth commandment, He did keep the Sabbath. I add this bit of information because I doubt that many folks who go around wearing WWJD bracelets really want to imitate Jesus when it comes to the Sabbath question.

We learn as well that Jesus did some things that a lot of evangelicals would be noticeably uncomfortable with?Jesus drank wine (not grape juice that most churches serve in communion, but real alcoholic-type wine [Luke 7:33-34]). Jesus also cursed (Mark 11:21). I am not equating cursing with “cussing” or with profanity–but Jesus did curse and He also used imprecations (Matt. 23:13-33). By now your typical evangelical will grimace, run his finger around the inside of his collar and swallow hard before complaining, “You’re spoiling everything! All we are trying to do is a little behavioral modification. Don’t you see the benefit of getting kids to be mindful of their actions by making Jesus their role model? Why is it that guys like you always have to analyze everything to death? This is a very noble thing and you have to go spoil it by raising questions that question the whole concept of WWJD.” (I have had this “Spock/Dr. McCoy” interchange with more than one person.)

I am going to make a statement that will, no doubt, surprise (and maybe make angry) some Christians. Jesus does not appear in the pages of the new Testament primarily as a role model. I will repeat that remark for the sake of emphasis. The New Testament does not present Jesus primarily as a role model, especially in the sense in which we today use the expression, “role model” (a synonym, practically speaking, for hero, usually with celebrity status). It is worthwhile to note that the present day preoccupation with WWJD owes its popularity to a book written about a century ago. That book, In His Steps, written by Charles Sheldon (1857-1946), A Congregational minister and ardent “social gospel” advocate. The phrase “social gospel” does not set off alarms and raise red flags today as it did with our evangelical forebears. But there was a time, in our not too distant past, when evangelicals would hear phrases like “Jesus is our role model” and immediately sense that a theological liberal was on the premises. And, as it turns out, Sheldon was not an evangelical. In fact, he looked at Jesus, not through the eyes of orthodoxy, but as a theological liberal who viewed Jesus first and foremost as a religious reformer and role model. In this sense, Jesus is a role model in the same way that nay other great religious leader is, be it Buddha or Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Jr.

The New Testament never presents Jesus in that light. We are urged, for example, to emulate the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1), but not in the sense that we are to try and hypothetically determine how Paul (or Jesus) would act in any given situation? but rather we are to follow him in his obedience to the Word of God. Besides, and this needs to be said up front, we don’t know how Jesus would respond in many of the situations that confront us today, and it is more than a little quixotic for anyone to suggest that he possesses the innate ability to determine how Jesus would respond. I am reminded of a book that appeared a few years back titled, What Would Jesus Say To. . . . The author of the book, an associate pastor in one of the huge mega-churches that promotes the seeker-sensitive approach to church growth, confidently assured his readers that he knows what Jesus would say to contemporary figures like O.J. Simpson, Madonna, Rush Limbaugh and, believe it or not, the cartoon character Bart Simpson. Predictably, this particular Jesus was also seeker-sensitive and extremely non-judgmental in his therapeutic advice. (Limbaugh did manage to get somewhat reprimanded for being insensitive!)

What’s wrong with this picture? Why is the whole approach of WWJD so terribly flawed? In addition to being pretentious, it reflects the quick-fix formula mentality that many evangelicals eagerly embrace. But I can hear someone say, “Wait a minute. Are you saying that we should not imitate Jesus? No, not at all, but there is a massive difference between the call to Christ-likeness and the decidedly unbiblical notion lurking behind WWJD. Christ-likeness has to do with the development of character. It is the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit. WWJD, on the other hand, is an artificial formula that is similar to tying a string around your finger so you will remember to pick up some item at the store. (Dare I suggest the WWJD bracelets bear an uncanny and uncomfortable resemblance to the rosary?) Anyone can follow this formula and you do not need Jesus in order to do so. there is nothing distinctively Christian about it, and in reality, it can be nothing but a religious cloak for the flesh.

We are called to have the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:1-8). But this text is not urging us to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?”–rather, Paul directs us to what Jesus actually did do. The exhortation, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,” is very similar to the call for mind renewal in Romans 12:1-2. This mindset is to characterize our day-to-day walk, not to simply on occasions when we have tough decisions to make. We are to be humble-minded and unselfish, and this is what it means to imitate Christ. B.B. Warfield, in one of his chapel sermons delivered to students at Princeton Theological Seminary, said: 

He whom as our Master we have engaged to obey, whom as our Example we are pledged to imitate, is presented to us here as the great model of self-sacrificing unselfishness. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” is the apostle’s pleading. We need to note carefully, however, that it is not self-depreciation, but self-abnegation, that is thus commended to us. If we would follow Christ, we must, every one of us, not in pride but in humility, yet not in lowness but in lowliness, not degrade ourselves but forget ourselves, and seek every man not his own things but those of others.1

Warfield’s point (and more importantly the point that Paul is underscoring) is distantly removed from the concept of WWJD. If we look carefully, WWJD really is a form of behavior modification. I recently watched a TV preacher wax eloquently on the benefits of WWJD. In the course of his sermon he asked the question, “What is sin?” The bible tells us plainly that sin is the transgression of the Law (1 John 3:4). That wasn’t the answer the TV preacher gave. Rather, he declared that sin “is anything that Jesus would not do.” What’s wrong with that? For starters, it views sin almost exclusively in terms of specific negative acts?what Jesus would not do. Sin, however, is more than acts of commission. Sin also involves the omission of duty. Failure to love God with all our being and likewise our neighbor as ourselves is transgression as well. This brings me to the crux of the matter. “What would Jesus do?” Jesus would fulfill all righteousness. Jesus would fully obey God. Jesus would as the last Adam, not fail as the first Adam did. His life of obedience is absolutely essential to His work of redemption. Christians often fail to realize that Jesus’ active obedience, demonstrated in His sinless life, is also an important aspect of our salvation (cf. Rom. 5:19; Heb. 5:8-9; 10:9-10). Listen carefully to the words of John Murray, in a sermon on Philippians 2:5-9:

It is on the supreme example of our Lord that the basic virtues of the Christian life are nurtured. It is significant that what was unique in Jesus’ undertaking is the pattern. There can be no repetition or duplication of what He has done. To have the mind that was in Christ Jesus is not mimicry of His action. It is to be animated in our vocation and in our relations to others by that mind exemplified by Him in His inimitable commitment. Our Lord’s incomparable self-humiliation accords to the humble mindedness required of us the highest sanction. “It is enough for the disciple to be as his master, and the servant as his lord.”2


Gary Johnson is the pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Mesa, Arizona, and is a contributor to The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Editor, John H. Armstrong).


  1. B.B. Warfield, The Saviour of the World (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992),174.
  2. Collected Writings of John Murray III (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 241.

This article appeared in the “Viewpoint”, May-June 1998, volume 2, No.3 a publication of the Reformation and Revival Ministries, and has been used by permission of the Editor. A selection of back issues are available for reading online at their web site.

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