When I was a kid, among my favorite books were those “Choose Your Own Adventure” stories. In these books, the reader is the main character in the story, and in certain points of the book you’d have a choice to make, and depending on what choice you made, you’d have to turn to a particular page in the book to find out the consequences of your choices. Many of the choices led to favorable outcomes, a few choices led to disaster. It was a real clever series, and part of the fun for me was that if my choice didn’t work out so well, I could always go back and try different options to see how the story would go.
Well, in real life, people often treat religion like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” story. There are many different paths, many different versions of the story, and many of them can have favorable outcomes. In fact, many people treat Jesus like this. Who Jesus really is has become less important than just choosing and having some sort of Jesus.
This kind of sentiment is quite common in churches today. It’s also quite deadly. You can accuse me of dramatic exaggeration, but Jesus was the originator of such a polarizing sentiment. Jesus said to the Pharisees,
“…unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
What you believe about Jesus is doctrine. And the wrong doctrine can kill.
The Church in America must not lose the urgency of the need for a correct Christology. We live in a day and age where virtually everyone claims to embrace Jesus, while simultaneously choosing different versions of Jesus. Such dangerous confusion is nothing new. Pastor Steve, in launching our new sermon series through 1 John, underscored this point.
“All heresies find their root in a misunderstanding of who Jesus is. There were other Jesus’ being taught in the churches of Asia minor, and there are other Jesus’ being taught today, but those Jesus’ cannot save you.”
What you choose to believe about Jesus matters. Unlike the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, every path, every Jesus, except for one ends in disaster.
Why is that? Because, “…unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24)
And why is that? Why do we need to believe very specific things about Jesus? Why is it that life cannot come through believing in any old version of Jesus? Because the message that the apostle John preached and the life that John offers to His readers is bound up in an actual, real person. The “Word of Life” that John proclaims (1 John 1:1) is a Man!
Again, as Pastor Steve powerfully preached,
The deep, foundational truth about the message that John proclaims is that it’s not mere information, it’s not a philosophy, it’s not a feeling, it’s not an exalted concept, it’s not a vision, it’s not an esoteric experience, it’s not a moral idea, it’s a person!
Now if this life is bound up in a person, then you must KNOW this person to receive that life. Again, that’s not me being dramatic. I’m simply taking my cues from Jesus who said,
And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
And this takes us full circle. If you don’t believe that Jesus is who He says He is, if you reject that and choose your own adventure, if you invent another version of Jesus that you can more easily stomach, then you don’t know the real Jesus. You instead have a relationship with a fictitious being of your own imagination, and consequently you don’t have eternal life and will die in your sins.
So doctrine does matter after all.
Choose your own Jesus?
Pastor Steve reminded us in his message of some of the many different versions of Jesus you can choose that have no power to save. This week I’ve been reflecting on that, and was struck by the incredible inferiority of all of the impostors.
The humanist Jesus can’t save– If Jesus is merely a sinful, flawed man like the rest of us, then he has his own sin debt to pay. How can he pay anyone else’s?
The Jehovah’s Witness version of Jesus cannot save-The JW Jesus is merely a created angel, and no mere angel can save, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us,
“… no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
Consequently, the Mormon Jesus cannot save- The Jesus of Mormonism is not the eternal God, but merely a created, finite being, who came into existence as a “spirit-child” of the Father along with the rest of us.
The Muslim Jesus cannot save- In Islam, Isa is not only merely a creature, but he doesn’t even die on the cross. And if he doesn’t die on the cross, there is no sin bearing substitute for sinners and we will die in our sins. (1 Cor 1:18-24)
The Jesus of Gnosticism cannot save-The apostle John’s Gnostic opponents believed that the “Christ” wasn’t even flesh and blood. Yet the Scriptures teach us that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. (Heb 9:22) What’s more, if a real flesh and bone body went into the tomb Friday evening, Easter Morning saw the resurrection of that same real flesh and bone body. While the Gnostics would be scandalized by this, the apostle Paul tells us that if there is no real resurrection, we are still dead in our sins. (1 Cor 15:17)
The American “life coach” version of Jesus cannot save- This Jesus merely gives us an affirming mentor, offering helpful tips to make our lives better. And yet the Bible teaches us that we are sinners through and through who hate God and are on a spiritually suicidal self-destructive path. We cannot do good, and spiritually we are dead. (Romans 3:9-20) No amount of “tips” and “good advice” can alter the course of a sinner who is by nature Hell-bent on defying God. You’d have as much success as trying to motivate a corpse to get up and walk.
The “Good teacher” version of Jesus cannot save- This Jesus is held up by many to be a very good moral teacher but he is certainly not God. Yet Jesus Himself doesn’t give us this option. Jesus declares Himself to be God (John 8:58), He receives worship (Matthew 28:9), He makes Himself equal with God (John 5:18), and He does things that only God can do (Mark 2:7). If Jesus isn’t God, He’s either the biggest con-artist in history, or a sick and twisted crazed buffoon. If those options seem outrageous, the only other option is that He is who He said He is, namely God.
If you want any of the above versions of Jesus, good luck with that. Your story will not end well. But if you want a Jesus that really saves, you need to know the real Jesus, the Jesus as revealed in the Bible. The Scriptures clearly demonstrate the superiority of Jesus over the false versions by showing that Jesus is both God and Man. And indeed, the only way that Jesus can be of any eternal benefit to you is if He is simultaneously both.
Nearly 1000 years ago, Anselm of Canterbury wrote his famous work, Cur Deus Homo, which means “Why God became man.” Anselm explains sin in terms of debt, as a failure to render to God the obedience He deserves. Because our sin is against an infinitely holy God, the debt that we owe is far greater than what finite man can pay. This is why Hell goes on forever.
The dilemma is that if it is man who has sinned, and if God is to forgive man, the debt must then be paid by a man, but how can this be if man already owes his own debt? How can a penniless man who owes an infinite debt pay off the debt of another who owes just as much?
What we need is another man who owes no debt, and yet, because He is infinite, can pay what a mere man could never pay. Going back to the Heidelberg Catechism, we need one who can “sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.” But man is not infinite, only God is. So what is the solution?
Anselm explains that,
…the heavenly kingdom must be filled with men, and if this cannot happen unless the satisfaction is made for sin – satisfaction which no one can make but God, and no one ought to make but man – then it is necessary for the God-man to make it.
Jesus Christ is the Theanthropos, the God-Man. The apostle John tells us that the Word of Life was “made manifest” (1 John 1:2) and that this manifest Word was One who “…was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands…” (1 John 1:1)
In an earlier letter, John writes on the one hand that “…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”(John 1:14), but on the other hand writes unashamedly that“…the Word was God.” (John 1:1) That means that on the cross you have a real Man who can adequately represent man by having man’s sin transferred to Him, but you also have one who is more than a man. You have the only one who can, in a single Friday afternoon, bear the full weight of God’s holy justice against sin. Jesus is the God-Man, and to place your hope in any other “Jesus” is to reject the only being in the universe who can atone for your sins. What you believe about Jesus is a matter of life and death.
If Jesus is the Theanthropos, then to reject who Jesus really is, is the same as rejecting God. Jesus says, “Whoever hates me hates my Father also.” (John 15:23) And rejecting God doesn’t lead to life, but to death. And unlike “Choose Your Own Adventure”, when you get to the end of the story, you can’t go back and try a different path. The Bible says that “…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27)
Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure stories, there is only one path to a happy ending. “…unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” What are the implications of this sober warning in a culture with a thousand different Jesus’? How will our friends and neighbors believe so that they won’t die in their sins? The Bible gives a clear answer:
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:13-15)
Don’t keep the Word of Life to yourself, point people to Him.
Some lament that there are not multiple paths to a good ending. Some ask, “Why is there only one way?” I think the better question is, “Why is there any way at all?” God could have justly consigned all to Hell. Imagine a Choose Your Own Adventure book where no matter which way you turned, it all ended in destruction? But God, in His graciousness, has provided us a way. Jesus said,
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Unlike the Choose Your Own Adventure books, you aren’t the main character of the story who is in charge of how things end. Christ is the main character, and He wants our little story to be enveloped in His big story. All the false messiahs of the world are paths that lead to dead ends, but everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. And His name is Jesus, so choose this day whom you will serve.
Grace and Peace,