“Jesus is not an example.” I have heard Lutheran pastors express this thought many times since the 1990’s when WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” became part of the American evangelical Christian culture. Lutherans have responded by saying that what matters is not what Jesus would do, but rather what Jesus has done for us in his saving death and resurrection. What Jesus has done for us is a matter of Gospel, while on the other hand taking Jesus as an example is a matter of Law. Talk of Jesus as example has often been rejected outright as “moralism.” In Lutheran circles a good way to raise questions about the character of one’s theology is to speak about the example of Jesus.
The problem is that this is a classic example of a theological overreaction. A serious problem, without a doubt, is present. Drawing on its deep Reformed theological roots, American evangelicalism speaks of the Law as not only a source of knowledge about God’s will, but more importantly it views the Law as something that prompts obedience. Thus the speaking of the Law becomes the true means whereby a Christian is enabled to live in God pleasing ways. The example of Jesus that serves as a guide for what we are to do, is also intended to enable the Christian to do it. In American evangelicalism this serves the true goal of theology, for it is the transformed life which is proof of God’s saving work in the individual. This is a theology that can be described as moralism for the moral life is the real goal and the goal is achieved through a life lived according to certain directives.
However, the proper response to this is not avoidance or even outright rejection of Jesus as an example. In the same way, the American evangelical emphasis on directions for living a godly life should not prompt an avoidance or rejection of language that teaches, encourages and exhorts Christians in how they are to live.
I am currently in the process of reading Martin Luther’s Church Postil which treats the Epistle and Gospel lessons of the one year lectionary (those that have been traditional in Lutheranism since the sixteenth century). Luther called the Winter Postil (the first portion of what eventually became the Church Postil) “the best book I ever wrote” (though, of course, Luther said this about other works as well) (LW 75:xvi).
I was struck immediately in the introduction (“What Should be Sought and Expected in the Gospels”) that Luther freely speaks of Christ as an example, as long as this is kept in its proper place. He writes:
The main point and basis of the Gospel is that before you grasp Christ as an example, you first receive and apprehend Him as a gift and present given to you by God to be your own. When you see or hear that He has done something or suffered something, do not doubt that Christ Himself with His doing and suffering is yours. You can rely on Him no less than if you had done it – indeed, as if you were Christ (LW 75:8).
Luther adds later: "Therefore, you see the Gospel is not properly a book of laws and commands which demand our activity from us, but a book of divine promises in which He promises, offers, and gives to us all His blessings and benefits in Christ” (LW 75:9). So the first thing about the Gospels is the Gospel. First, it is Christ as gift for us through his death and resurrection.
Yet Luther then goes on to write:
When you now have Christ in that way as the basis and chief blessing of your salvation, then the second part follows, namely, that you take Him as an example and devote yourself to serving your neighbor, just as you see that He devoted Himself to you. Then faith and love are both active, God’s commandment is fulfilled, and the person is cheerful and fearless to do and suffer anything. Therefore, just look at this: Christ as gift nourishes your faith and makes you a Christian. But Christ as an example uses your works, which do not make you a Christian, but rather they come from you who have already been made a Christian. Now as far as gift and example are separate, so far are faith and works separate. Faith has nothing of its own, but only Christ’s work and life. The works do have something special from you, but they should also not be your own, but belong to your neighbor. (LW 75:9).
In the second sermon of the Church Postil, the “Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent” (Matthew 21:[1-9]) Luther returns to this theme at the beginning. He writes:
In the preface, I said that there are two things to be noted and considered in the Gospel readings: first, the work of Christ presented to us as a gift and kindness, to which our faith is to cling and in which it is to be exercised; second, the same work offered as an example and model for us to imitate and follow. Thus all the Gospel lessons first teach faith and then works. (LW 75:28).
Luther emphasizes that this faith comes from God. He notes:
Before you can call on God or seek Him, God must first have come to you and have found you, as Paul says, “How can they call on Him unless they first believe? And how can they believe in Him unless there is first someone preaching? And how can they preach unless they are first sent? Etc. (Romans 10[:14-15]). God must lay the first stone and begin in you, if you are to seek Him and to pray to Him. (LW 75:34)
Luther reminds that, “It is not by your power that you hear and accept this, but by God’s grace, which renders the Gospel fruitful in you so that you believe Him” (LW 75:34).
Certainly Luther judges that this faith shows itself in life. He states: “This faith causes you to delight in Christ so that He tastes sweet in your heart. Then love and good works will follow naturally” (LW 75:30). But even here Luther is clear that the source of any doing by the believer is God:
You ask: “How shall we begin to be godly, or what shall we do that God may begin His work in us?” Answer: Didn’t you hear that there is not work or beginning in you that will make you godly, as little as the increase and the completion is in you? The beginning, the advance, and the completion is God’s alone [cf. Phil 1:6]. (LW 75:34).
Yet having emphasized the Gospel of Christ as gift, Luther then goes on to say:
We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith but also as an example through love toward our neighbor, to whom we are to give service and do good as Christ does to us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you as your own with all His possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions. These two things constitute a true and complete Christian life; then follow suffering and persecution for such faith and love; and out of these grows hope in patience (LW 75:41-42).
Luther rejects any distinction that we would use to try to get out of doing good works. He writes:
How are you to know them? Answer: They have no name so that there may be no distinction made and they may not be divided, so that you leave some undone. Rather, you should altogether give yourself up to [your neighbor] with all you have, just as Christ did not only pray or fast for you (LW 75:42).
Luther defines good works as those things that benefit another. He observes:
If you have ear to hear and a mind to observe listen and learn for God’s sake what good works are and mean. A good work is good because it is useful and benefits and helps the one for whom it is done. Why else should it be called good? (LW 75:43).
Luther does not speak about good works in the abstract, but rather identifies them according to the vocations in which Christians find themselves. He writes:
A man is to live, speak, act, hear, suffer, and die for the love and service of his wife and child, the wife for the husband, the children for the parents, the servants for their masters, the masters for their servants, the government for its subjects, the subjects for their government, each one for his fellow man, even for his enemies, so that one is the other’s hand, mouth, eye, foot, even heart and mind. These are truly Christian and naturally good works, which can and should be done unceasingly at all times. (LW 75:44).
Luther’s treatment of Jesus as example calls us to avoid theological overreactions, and instead to embrace biblical and Lutheran theology which seeks to engage in preaching how Christians are to live. It is true that when placed in the theological framework of American evangelicalism Jesus as example can be abused. But the abuse does not justify avoidance or abandonment. In fact such an action is itself error. Instead, Luther sets forth the manner in which we are to have Christ as gift and example – always remembering that Christ as gift comes first and makes everything else possible.